The ice cream gods were paying attention to Williston Park Monday. Hours after Hildebrandt’s announced on Facebook that it would be closing “within the next few months,” the 93-year-old ice cream shop posted on its Instagram account that “the buyer of the building backed out so we still have time!”
Hildebrandt’s is the only tenant at 84 Hillside Ave. and the building went on the market in May for $538,000. According to Hildebrandt's longtime manager and ice-cream maker, Tom Bauman, the prospective new owner had intended to “gut the store, put in a coffee shop and maybe sell ice cream — but not our ice cream.”
The closing had initially been scheduled for Sept. 1, but Hildebrandt’s owner Bryan Acosta asked for more time to be able to pay his summer bills. Even though the closing had not been rescheduled, Acosta felt that it was “time to let our customers know” and also to advise them that the shop’s historic fixtures were for sale.
But after the Facebook post went up, the buyer called Acosta to say that the deal was off.
On Facebook, Hildebrandt’s had specified that the impending sale was “unrelated to COVID,” and, in fact, Bauman said, “we’ve managed to get through it all right.” Table and counter service have returned but, even when business was only curbside and takeout, “ice cream sales actually went up. In the beginning I couldn’t keep up with the quarts and pints that people bought to bring home.” Mint chip has been the flavor to beat, though Bauman doesn’t know why. “It’s always been a good flavor for us, but it’s never been a bestseller.”
HIldebrandt’s future is not assured. The building is still for sale. But, Bauman pledged, “We will be doing what we can to make sure that Hildbrandt’s continues.”
The Acosta family isn't sure whether Henry Hildebrandt opened the store in 1927 or 1929. According to the business's website, in the '50s, Hildebrandt sold it to Alma Steffens; Steffens sold it to Helen Bohm in 1974 and, the following year, Bohm sold it to Alfred and Joanne Strano whose daughter, Susan, carried on the tradition with her husband, Bryan Acosta. Susan died in 2015.
At no point in its history did shortcuts make inroads into the way Hildebrandt’s prepared its specialties. Bauman, a childhood customer, learned to make ice cream from Alfred Strano and has been making it since 1985. That ice cream is the hero of some of Long Island’s best cones, sundaes, shakes and sodas, which taste all the more delicious consumed at the picturesque counter.
Strano was also responsible for the supernal French fries, coin-shaped slices rather sticks, and some darn good pasta. (I am partial to the rigatoni alla mamma with cauliflower, pecorino and breadcrumbs.)
As other venerable Long Island restaurants closed or renovated, Hildebrandt’s unreconstructed charm has made it even more precious. It had a star turn in last year’s “The Irishman” directed by Martin Scorsese as well as in “The Book of Henry” (2017). In 2011, Guy Fieri visited for a feature on Food Network's “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Hildebrandt's is at 84 Hillside Ave., Williston Park, 516-741-0608, hildebrandtsrestaurant.com.