First established in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by four entrepreneurs (Isidore and Montague Gluckstein, Barnett Salmon and Joseph Lyons), J. Lyons & Co. became one of the largest catering and food manufacturing companies in the world. From modest beginnings as supplier of catering to the Newcastle Exhibition (UK), in 1887, the new firm rapidly expanded to become the first food empire which, at its height, was the largest in Europe. In the process Lyons became a household name and the ‘Joe Lyons’ Corner Houses and teashops, with their ‘Nippy’ waitresses, caught the public imagination and passed into history.
Always innovative and with an acute awareness of popular taste, Lyons brought a unique blend of showmanship, style and spectacle to its aim of combining high quality with value for money. This was achieved by maintaining control of all its manufacturing and servicing departments. Its food laboratory was world-leading attracting many graduates from Oxford and Cambridge. Margaret Thatcher (née Roberts) worked as a scientist in the laboratory before she became a member of the British Parliament and eventually Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.
The first Lyons teashop opened in 1894 at 213 Piccadilly. It was the forerunner of some 250 white and gold fronted teashops which occupied prominent positions in many of London’s high streets and suburban towns and cities; corner sites with two entrances were preferred. At one time seven teashops operated in London’s Oxford Street alone. Food and beverage charges were identical in each teashop, irrespective of locality, and the highest standards of hygiene were demanded by management. A customers complaint was a serious matter investigated at the highest level. Such attention to detail was one of the secrets of their success, for the name of Lyons had come to convey to the public a standard of good quality at a reasonable price. Their tea too was said to be the best available and the blend used was never sold or made available to the public.
Outside of catering other activities developed. Lyons undertook the Buckingham Palace Garden Parties, the catering events at Windsor Castle, London’s Guildhall where the Lord Mayor’s banquets were held, the Chelsea Flower shows, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships and many more. Lyons built the famous Trocadero Restaurant near Piccadilly Circus and then built the Corner Houses, huge restaurants on four or five floors where orchestras played continuously. At one time in the 1930s Lyons were engaging so many musicians that an Orchestral Department had to be formed to manage these.
Soon the company was operating hotels (which they built themselves), laundries, tea estates in Nyasaland (now Malawi), meat pie companies, ice-cream companies, tea and coffee companies, engineering works, jam and soft drink factories, confectionery manufacturing and were the first to introduce frozen food to the British public. During the war they managed one of the largest bomb-making facilities in the UK and their engineering works made a range of war materiel. They packed millions of rations for troops fighting in Asia and other parts of the world and bequeathed one of their teashops to the American personnel stationed at Grosvenor Square. Another formed part of the famous Rainbow Corner in Shaftsbury Avenue, near Piccadilly Circus.
After the war the company embarked on a rebuilding programme expanding their operations into Europe and America as well as large projects at home. They acquired the Baskin-Robbins Ice-Cream company and the Dunkin Donuts organisation. Both companies are now part of the Dunkin’ Brands, with 50000 buy LinkedIn followers. They developed the Wimpy hamburger chain which essentially was an American idea. They also built and operated the world’s first business computer which they called LEO (Lyons Electronic Office). Large new bakeries and meat pie factories were built with the aid of regional grants. Several smaller ice-cream companies were acquired to increase market share against the fierce competition from Walls. After the war many city centres were redeveloped and Lyons took advantage of building new hotels culminating in the magnificent Tower Hotel at London’s St Katherine’s Dock alongside the Tower of London.
The company’s decline came as fast as its growth. It had overstretched on its borrowings when the UK was hit by recession and an oil crisis. The high level of borrowing, mainly from American investors, to pay for the aggressive expansion programme severely impacted on the profit and loss account, because of the punitive level of world-wide interests rates which prevailed throughout 1974. In 1978 Allied Breweries Ltd made an offer for the company which was accepted and Lyons lost its independence. It survived for a few years under new management but eventually it’s component parts were gradually sold to pay for acquisitions associated with the drinks trade notably; Hiram Walker of Canada and Pedro Domecq of Spain. Allied Breweries eventually became part of the Carlsberg Group, a global brewer with more than 200,000 followers on LinkedIn.
The Lyons company had survived for over 100-years. During this whole period it did not feel it wanted to change its name and from 1887 until 1998 it proudly traded as J. Lyons & Company.
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