Walter Itgen, a German immigrant, master chocolatier and businessman who founded Walt Itgen’s Ice Cream Parlor, a Valley Stream institution on Rockaway Avenue for more than half a century, died on Jan. 31. He was 88.
Itgen was defined by his hard work and dedication to the businesses that he operated with his late wife, Margaret, according to his sons, Michael and Walter Jr. He came to the United States in the mid-1950s in pursuit of the American dream, leaving his life behind there after helping to rebuild his war-torn home country as a bricklayer.
“He would always look at the sky and wanted to see the world,” Walter Jr. said. “It was either the United States or Australia, and it ended up being the United States.”
“He wanted to travel like the clouds,” Walter Jr.’s fiancee, Reine Emeish, said.
In his early 20s, Itgen worked at various Long Island delis after gaining sponsorship from an uncle who lived in Garden City, Michael said. He also worked setting up pins at a bowling alley at one point, and in 1956 he enlisted in the Army for two years as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in North Carolina.
When he re-turned, he was left with the choice of either attending college with the money he had saved or going into business, Walter Jr. said. He chose the latter.
“He always wanted to be a business owner,” his son said.
Itgen met his future wife, Margaret Magner, an immigrant from Ireland, at a dance in Mineola. “That’s what you did back then — you went to dances to meet people,” Walter Jr. said. “My father loved to dance.”
The two fell fast in love and were married in 1959. Around that time, they moved to Malverne, where they spent the rest of their lives together. Michael was born in 1960, and Walter Jr. in 1962.
The week he got married, Itgen purchased an ice cream parlor on Hempstead Avenue in Malverne called Schumacher’s. He had originally planned to keep the name, but was angry when he discovered that the former owner, Fred Schumacher, had failed to maintain the food stocks, so he changed the restaurant’s name to Walter Itgen’s Luncheonette. Walter Jr. humorously recounted his father being forced to run to the supermarket near the Malverne Movie Theater to pick up cans of tuna after discovering that Schumacher’s stores had run out. A customer had asked for a tuna sandwich.
“He probably should have checked,” his son chuckled.
In addition to the luncheonette, in 1961, Itgen became a partner with two others at a restaurant called Viebrock’s on Main Street in Freeport. The restaurant was renowned as one of the first locations in New York to serve Col. Harlan Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe, with an advertisement in a 1961 edition of the Long Island Graphic newspaper touting the KFC dine-out kits, which in addition to the chicken, included coleslaw, potato salad, biscuits, gravy and coffee.
Margaret was instrumental in his business endeavors, Emeish said, essentially allowing him to be in two places at once as Itgen shuttled between the Malverne and Freeport restaurants.
In 1967, looking to expand his business ventures, Itgen purchased the Valley Stream location from its previous tenant, and after building out the storefront to include a dining and chocolate room, business there took off, Michael said.
“The place just exploded,” he said.
All the while, Margaret worked alongside him. “My father couldn’t have done it without my mother,” Walter Jr. said.
“They were like a power couple,” Emeish said. Business at the Valley Stream Itgen’s became such that in the early 1970s, the two decided to sell the Malverne location to dedicate their entire attention to the Rockaway Avenue store. Later, they sold Viebrock’s as well.
Open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., in its heyday, Itgen’s was massively popular, with Walter Jr. noting that the family would work 70- to 80-hour weeks, and Itgen took his work ethic seriously. “The business came before anything,” he said. “The business was his life.”
Chocolate season, which ran more than half of the year from Halloween to Mother’s Day, was the shop’s busiest, and Itgen took great pride in crafting the chocolate and confections, often preparing and decorating them months in advance. Easter was the biggest holiday of them all, with up to 5,000 pounds of handcrafted chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs sold during the season, according to previous Herald reporting.
Itgen was constantly looked to hone his craft, Emeish said, seeking the best ice cream and chocolate recipes. From 1981 to 1993, he served as president of the Confectioners’ and Ice Cream Manufacturers’ Association of the State of New York. “He was like a visionary,” she said, “and a true self-made man.”
Although often engrossed in his work, Itgen did make time outside the parlor. In the 1970s, he worked as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Malverne Fire Department, was a longtime member of the Malverne Rotary Club, and from the 1990s until shortly before his death, he served on the board of Plattdeutsche Park in Franklin Square, doing stints as president, vice president and treasurer for the catering hall, restaurant and beer garden. He was also a philanthropist, Emeish said, at one point making a $300,000 donation to Plattdeutsche, which named a wing of the hall after Margaret, featuring a bust of her.
He also loved to travel, Michael said, occasionally taking 10 days off to visit exotic locales. “He traveled around the whole world,” he said, to place as diverse as Cuba, the Great Wall of China and Casablanca, in addition to visiting relatives in Germany.
Over the years, business at Itgen’s began to decline as the demographics of the area changed. In 2017, the family sold the parlor, but even after the sale, Itgen and his wife continued to work in the back to the end of their lives. “That generation was always doing something,” Michael said of his parents.
“My mother worked hand in hand with him . . . I said, ‘I hope they enjoyed their lives,’’ Walter Jr. said, noting that they both died within a few years of selling their business.
In October 2019, Margaret died at 84, and after that, Itgen continued to work at his former parlor until his health forced him home. “He worked there until the end,” Michael said.
In addition Michael and Walter Jr., Itgen is survived by his brother Lother, in Germany; seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Itgen was buried at Pinelawn Cemetery with his wife. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.