As co-proprietor of the iconic Black Forest Inn in Los Altos, Gertrud Kraenkel often greeted customers with a smile, some friendly conversation and a slice of her highly sought-after apple pie.
Mrs. Kraenkel, a personable, beloved figure from the early days of Los Altos, died Jan. 6. The longtime Los Altos resident was 95.
Mrs. Kraenkel and her husband, John, opened the Black Forest Inn restaurant in 1955, creating an eatery that specialized in John’s German cuisine and Gertrud’s to-die-for baked goods. They operated Black Forest for 13 years before selling the First Street restaurant in 1968. Ristorante Bella Vita, an Italian restaurant, currently occupies the site.
Born in 1922 in Czechoslovakia, the Nazi Germany occupation at the cusp of World War II forced Mrs. Kraenkel and her family out of their homeland.
“They had to leave with just the clothes on their backs,” Gabriele McInnis, Mrs. Kraenkel’s niece, recalled her aunt saying.
Mrs. Kraenkel relocated to southern Germany during the war and worked as an assistant to a patent lawyer. Later, she met John, 19 years her senior, through her church. They first communicated as pen pals. McInnis said John arranged for his brother, Joe, to meet Gertrud to “check her out” prior to their first date.
Both sociable people, John and Gertrud’s relationship quickly blossomed. They were married in Germany in 1953.
Lured by opportunity and the start of a new life, the couple relocated to California in 1955. John, who attended culinary school in Germany, sold polish sausages on the streets of San Francisco.
One day while traveling south, the couple “wandered off,” McInnis said, saw a sign for Los Altos and ended up in the downtown village.
The couple walked into a real estate office and struck up a conversation with Alan Cranston, a future U.S. senator who was a local leader at the time.
They ended up purchasing the 376 First St. property to open their restaurant.
The relatively small restaurant became a big meeting spot for some of the great pioneers of Silicon Valley. According to Bo Lojek’s “History of Semiconductor Engineering,” Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corp., was instrumental in “forming a group of dissidents and acted as their spokesman. The group congregated at the Black Forest restaurant in Los Altos.”
That group became known as the legendary “Traitorous Eight,” a team of bright engineers who mapped out their plans to leave Shockley Labs to start Fairchild Semiconductor.
Adding to the Black Forest’s welcoming environment was a painted mural of a German village and countryside, the result of Mrs. Kraenkel’s artistic touch. She also would paint the restaurant windows at Christmastime.
Her baked goods were extremely popular, according to McInnis.
“They only sold her apple pies by the slice,” she said, otherwise they would have quickly run out of pies.
After opening Black Forest, the Kraenkels lived in Los Altos the rest of their lives. John died in 1989.
McInnis said her aunt had a great sense of humor.
“She was very warm-hearted, always telling stories – a sweet and sincere person,” McInnis said.
McInnis offered an example of Mrs. Kraenkel’s playful side. She related a story about her aunt bringing a toy canary to church that peeped during the service.
“You always had to come over with a joke,” McInnis said of their family visits.
Mrs. Kraenkel also wanted the latest gossip: “Who’s in?” she would ask.
Mrs. Kraenkel’s survivors include a son, Johnny, of Citrus Heights; a grandson; and a great-grandson.
A private memorial service in Los Altos is scheduled Friday.