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Herlocher or Horlacher? It’s All in the Mustard

by on July 14, 2017 5:00 AM

Names are meant to differentiate families or individuals. But sometimes they cause more confusion than they prevent. Just be glad you don’t live in Philadelphia with the name “Benjamin Franklin” or in State College with the name “James Franklin.”

Even if you don’t look like him, celebrity seekers are hoping you are at least related to him. And self-styled comics simply must be the first to cleverly say you look just like your famous non-relative. “No,” you patiently explain. “I’m not related to him.”

And so it was that I entered the perplexing world of mistaken identity at the tender age of eight. It was 1960, and a man named Chuck Herlocher had just moved to State College and opened Herlocher’s BBQ. Suddenly, my family started getting telephone orders for Chuck’s delicious pizza or rotisserie chicken, available through home delivery. Apparently, Herlocher’s customers were too famished to note the two-vowel difference between “Herlocher” and “Horlacher” in the State College phone book.

Meanwhile, other community interactions started to produce this never-ending question: “Are you one of the Herlochers?” Although the Herlochers were not famous on a national basis, they soon became well known in Happy Valley. And so I crafted a quick response: “Their name starts with H-E-R; our name starts with H-O-R.”

I moved away from State College in 1974 upon graduation from Penn State. When I returned in 2013, I started hearing a new question (“Are you related to the mustard people?”), but I could still use my old reply (“Their name starts with H-E-R; our name starts with H-O-R”). If anything, the situation was worse than in the 60s and 70s because Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard had gone big-time. Almost everyone in our region has tasted it at tailgates or Super Bowl parties.

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But here’s the crazy thing. After all these years of living near the Herlochers in little ol’ State College, none of us H-O-Rs had ever met any of the H-E-Rs. I realized that if I didn’t reach out, it might never happen. My parents had both passed away, and my brother, Bob, and his wife, Diane, had moved to Lebanon County long ago.

And so it was that I planned a visit with Chuck Herlocher and his son, Neil, at their downtown office — about 55 years after taking my first call for Herlocher’s chicken. Immediately, I took a liking to Neil, now 53 years old and president of Herlocher Foods, and to Chuck, nearly 78 and still very active in the family’s enterprises.

They described the events that gave birth to Herlocher’s BBQ… that enabled a transition to Herlocher’s Restaurant… that led to the creation of the Train Station Restaurant, C.C. Peppers and other eateries… that produced the booming sales of Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard… that sparked the origins of a real estate management company. It seemed to me that everything they’ve touched has turned to gold, and so I asked a simple question: “What is the family genius?”

 

Chuck and Neil work together to develop their family enterprises, and to support worthy causes in State College.

RELIANCE ON HARD WORK

Immediately, Chuck mentioned his father and mother, and spoke about their hard work. Chuck’s dad, Roy, grew up on a farm in Clinton County, and Roy’s mother died when he was just 14 years old. Roy began working as a waiter in a restaurant, and he got to know the owner, a gentleman of means who owned a meat packing plant and stores throughout central Pennsylvania. This man helped Roy open Herlocher’s Restaurant in Lock Haven on June 26, 1926, just two days before Roy married the former Rachel Bowser of Blanchard.

And yes, the young couple worked hard — incredibly hard — in the restaurant business. “My father opened the restaurant every day,” says Chuck, “and my mother closed the restaurant. That was their life, along with family. He would open the door for business at 5 in the morning… And then my mother would shut it down at 2 in the morning.”

So, Chuck, does that mean the restaurant was open 21 a day, seven days a week? “Well, it was open 21 hours a day except for Sunday. On Sunday, it might have opened at 7 a.m. and closed at noon or 1 p.m. And Christmas was the only day it was closed.”

 

Roy Herlocher (far left) and Rachel (beside him) operated Herlocher's Restaurant in Lock Haven from 1926 to 1958.

SCOUTING FOR NEW IDEAS

Raised on a diet of hard work, Chuck wasn’t one to cut corners in his own businesses. But as I talked with the Herlochers, I sensed that industriousness alone couldn’t have produced their wide variety of achievements. Even Thomas Edison’s famous quote about hard work (“Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”) leaves room for something else.

At this point, Neil provided the missing ingredient. “What he (Chuck) didn’t say about my grandfather is that he was very hard-working but he was very disorganized. That drove my father crazy. He is incredibly organized. Everything we’ve done in all of our restaurants and businesses, there’s a written procedure… We emphasize simplicity as well, because you don’t have chefs (in State College’s casual restaurants); you’ve got college guys working the grill.”

And Chuck was always looking for new ideas — new recipes, new ways to prepare foods, new modes of décor. He and his first wife, Gladys, traveled to various regions of the nation, and they brought back their restaurant discoveries to State College. “Even the craziest little greasy spoon, sometimes you could get an idea from them,” says Chuck.

Many of the ideas for the Train Station, State College’s first theme restaurant, came from trips taken by Chuck and Gladys, who served as the establishment’s creative director. They were especially inspired by the energetic decor of Houlihan’s, the Kansas-based chain. And then there was a special recipe they brought to The Train Station from a bakery in Manhattan. “We had a pumpernickel raisin bread that was to die for,” he says. “It was almost like a dessert.”


 

Key staff at The Train Station included kitchen manager Brian Clark (far left), creative directory Gladys Herlocher Fox (fourth from right), general manager Frank Hornstein (third from right) and Chuck Herlocher (far right).

A CONDIMENT WORTH A MONUMENT

But it didn’t take a trip for the Herlochers to discover the formula for their famous mustard — it was right under their noses. It seems Pennsylvania’s liquor laws permit restaurants and bars to only give away certain snack foods — peanuts, pretzels, popcorn, etc.— to go with the beer they sell. Chuck realized that he could inexpensively buy broken bits of hard pretzels and they would be a treat if dipped into the right mustard. Says Neil, “We had an old mustard recipe in the family that we modified a bit and we started giving away pretzels with the mustard in the restaurant.” Soon the mustard was sold in Herlocher restaurants and then later in grocery stores.

So what makes Herlocher’s Mustard such a special condiment? “One of the main ingredients,” says Neil, “is fresh whole eggs… Most mustards have mustard flour, water, vinegar and salt — and they mix it cold and jar it. Ours has those ingredients, but we add a lot of fresh whole eggs and a little bit of sugar and we cook it. It’s creamier, it’s thicker. And when it’s fresh, it has a little kick.”   

I could extol the glories of Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard and tell you how delicious it is. But remember, my name starts with H-O-R, not H-E-R, so I don’t make a nickel on the stuff. Maybe it’s better to let Chuck tell a story about his product.

“It’s been 33 years that we’ve been making the mustard,” he says. “I don’t think of it as being that big of a deal.… But I had a contractor one time call me from the Virgin Islands, and he said he wanted a case of mustard. I checked the freight and called him back. I told him, ‘I don’t think you want it,’ because the freight was something like $200. He said, ‘No, I want it.  I love it.’”

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It’s one thing to make good money. It’s another thing to decide how to spend the money that’s left over after supporting one’s family. The Herlochers like to blend their love for State College with their philanthropic instincts. And that’s why Chuck stepped into a floundering effort to build State College’s YMCA back in 1994. “They’d had two campaigns to raise money” he recalls, “but they hadn’t built a building.”  So Chuck met with a local bank to arrange financing, and he spearheaded a fundraising effort along with Ray Agostinelli, owner of the McLanahan’s stores. The building was built, obviously, and Chuck is one of its frequent lap swimmers.

If anything, Neil might have even a greater love for Happy Valley than does his dad. Although he earned his bachelor’s degree at Boston University, Neil returned to State College and met his wife, the former Sharon Kuntz, an All-Big Ten field hockey player for the Nittany Lions. And it’s in State College where the Herlochers are raising their three children:  Charlie is 15; Phebe is 13 and Lanie is 10.  

“When you leave and come back,” notes Neil, “you can really appreciate the small town. Life is just so easy here. It’s a great town. It’s vibrant.”

The Herlochers believe in putting their money where their mouths are, so they recently purchased a 26,000 square foot building at the corner of East College Avenue and South Pugh Street. The property is home to nine commercial spaces and 16 apartments, and it has an assessed value of $804,120. Of course, the Herlochers expect this venture to become profitable, but they’re just as interested in the downtown’s future viability. “We’re very invested in downtown State College,” Neil recently told the Centre County Gazette. “We want to continue to see State College be a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

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Yes, I’m still asked if my family produces the mustard. Or if we used to run the Train Station. And now I’ll probably be congratulated over the purchase of the building at the corner of Pugh and College.  

But sometimes confusion brings benefits. Like the time earlier this summer when my son, Steve, was mentioned as the losing pitcher in a Centre County League baseball game and his name was written as “Jeff Herlocher.” I don’t know where “Jeff” came from in this account, but I know the basis of “Herlocher.” Of course, it’s not so bad to have your name misspelled as the losing pitcher, as long as the newspaper doesn’t say, “He couldn’t cut the mustard.”  

If confusion is inevitable, I’m glad to have our name mixed up with the Herlochers. It would be very hard to find a better bunch for mistaken identity than this family — people who work hard, produce a great product and love this community as much as I do.

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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