Hugh McNally, the owner of Chestnut Hill’s McNally’s Tavern for 42 years, and inventor of the famous Schmitter sandwich, died of heart failure on Sept. 11. McNally’s “keeping it simple,” philosophy was one he shared with his grandmother, Rose, who opened McNally’s in 1921 as a place for trolley workers to find “quick lunches” at the end of the line.
Hugh started working at McNally’s in 1954, when he returned home from serving in the Korean War. He agreed to fill in for a short time so that he could save money and marry his high school sweetheart. Hugh’s father operated the bar then, servicing a hard-drinking crowd that chased breakfasts of hard- boiled eggs with shots and beers.
When the former Marine decided to follow in his family’s footsteps, he encouraged his father to add a few other simple staples like soup to the menu, and to refurbish the bar so that it could accommodate more customers. Renovations in the 1960s attracted a new clientele that was becoming more comfortable on the bar scene: women. Chestnut Hill College girls and their beaus ushered in Hugh McNally’s success as a business owner.
“Dad liked feeding people,” said his daughter Anne McNally, the current owner. “A bowl of his soup could cure anything.”
The founding of The Schmitter
But it was a sandwich that made Hugh McNally famous among Philadelphians. Over 40 years ago, he made a beef and salami sandwich for a patron who only drank Schmidt’s beer. As he threw it together with cheese, onions, and special sauce, he didn’t think it was anything special. Decades later, both Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field sell The Schmitter.
Before his sandwich achieved such large-scale success, McNally made unconventional business choices that others deemed financial mistakes. He stopped selling six packs after questioning the validity of a young patron’s driver’s license. Assured that the young man was old enough to buy beer, McNally shook his head.
“We’re not doing it anymore,” Anne remembers her father saying.
And in 1998, four years after he retired, Hugh McNally watched a pregnant Anne struggle to run the bar amidst a reaction to cigarette smoke. He encouraged her to eliminate indoor smoking, a decision that made the tavern one of the first in the state to voluntarily do so.
When it came time for Hugh to retire in 1994, he appointed Anne as his successor.
“Dad used to say, ‘You either have it or you don’t in the restaurant business,'” said Anne, who has worked at McNally’s since graduating from high school in 1979.
She and her sister Meg now run the daily operations. “He felt that women could do anything they wanted to do,” she remembered. “He really felt that if Meg and I ran it, it would survive.”
A family business
Ninety-two years after Rose McNally served her first patrons at the top of Germantown Avenue, her great-granddaughters build the tavern’s menu around the staples of soup and sandwiches. Like their father, the sisters honor their great-grandmother’s appreciation for fresh ingredients: McNally’s is one of the few taverns in the city that doesn’t serve any fried food.
The spirit of community has also survived at McNally’s. Delivery workers are offered lunch when they drop off orders, and the staff greets people with warmth when they enter the front door. Over the years, McNally’s proximity to churches and the hospital has led patrons through its doors during happy and solemn occasions.
Recently, a 21 year old came in with his parents to celebrate his birthday with his first legal drink. He had first entered McNally’s when he was six days old.
Until his health began to decline two years ago, Hugh McNally corresponded monthly by handwritten letter with over 15 people — family, friends, and longtime customers. For most of his retirement years, he and his wife of 57 years lived in Long Beach Island.
Occasionally, he would visit the tavern, walk to the bar, and ask, “Do you mind if I sit and chat?”
He never drank, and he always tipped well.
“He was so much more than McNally’s, ” said Anne. “He loved Chestnut Hill. He loved the park.” She remembers hiking the Wissahickon trails with her father and her four siblings as they grew up in the neighborhood.
“We didn’t ever really travel far,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate to live in a great community.”
Our Mother of Consolation Church (9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave.) will hold a mass on Sept. 18 at 11 a.m. The family welcomes friends to pay their respects starting at 9 a.m. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to St. Joseph Villa, 110 W. Wissahickon Ave., Flourtown PA 19031.