LESSING'S: A FAMILY OF INNOVATORS
125 year Anniversary
A FAMILY OF INNOVATORS
(1890 to 1940)
The oldest family-owned and operated food service business in the United States is Lessing’s in Great River, New York. The company was founded by Maxwell Lessing in 1890 and is operated to this day by 15 family members representing three generations of Lessings. This highly diversified company feeds more than 40,000 guests a day at over 100 corporate, educational, country club, and manufacturing plant locations throughout the Northeast. Lessing's also operates thirteen high-end wedding and catering venues, 9 full service restaurants, an historic hotel built in 1751, and has entered into a franchise agreement with Blaze Fast Fire'd Pizza to develop a chain of pizza restaurants. The Lessing family has provided food service to New Yorkers for 125 years without interruption. Both the longevity and the success of this legacy company is unprecedented, especially in the food service and restaurant business.
I decided to see if I could discover the secret of this family’s success. What was it about the Lessing clan that set them apart from countless other restaurant companies that have come and gone from the food service scene? 125 years in business is remarkable enough. But to have the same family operate the company the entire time is unheard of. My research into the company’s history revealed the secret immediately.
The Lunch Counter
Maxwell Lessing was an innovator. He responded to the explosion of the urban worker population in the 1890’s by opening the first convenient lunch counter in New York’s financial district. For the first time in American history, workers who lived in boarding houses that supplied meals, left home to go to work and had to forsake the noon meal. They had little time and less money for lunch. In addition, women were joining the work force in droves during this era and began to patronize places they once dared not enter, climbing onto lunch counter stools and venturing into cafes in the evening without escorts.
By 1893 the country had slipped into a severe four-year recession, and the self-service lunches available in saloons on the honor system began to suffer an enormous amount of theft. One after another, saloon owners began to eliminate the honor system lunches. Maxwell again saw their problem as his opportunity and responded by expanding his low-price/pay-as-you-go lunch counter operation to multiple locations in office buildings around Wall Street.
Then, he innovated again. With multiple locations to service, Maxwell established a commissary on Jones Lane close to his lunch counters in the Wall Street area. From the commissary he would prepare baked goods, sliced meats, salads, soups & hot foods to deliver to his locations and serve the long lines of office workers who were rapidly running out of places to eat. Maxwell’s commissary on Jones Lane was the first multi-unit restaurant commissary in the United States.
The commissary concept was an innovation well before its time and led to another innovation that would become an American food staple - the sandwich. Maxwell didn't invent the sandwich, but Lessing’s was the first company to serve sandwiches at lunch counters in New York City. Workers could either eat them at the lunch counters or take them away and enjoy them on a park bench or back in the quiet of their office.
Great innovators not only create innovative products but also recognize innovation wherever they see it. Dr. Pemberton, perhaps one of the greatest innovators of all time, created Coca-Cola in 1886. In 1890, Asa G. Candler, the legendary President of the Coca-Cola Company began to distribute coke syrup to soda fountains outside Atlanta. Maxwell Lessing was the first New York restaurateur to buy Coca-Cola syrup and serve Coke to his customers. The introduction of both the sandwich, and the Coke, by one small lunch counter operator in 1890’s New York was an almost unimaginable great leap forward in food service.
“Of the three meals that mark the American day, lunch is the one that acquired its modern identity here on the streets of New York,” according to a New York Public Library exhibit on New York culture.
The 1920’s is an important decade in Lessing history because it marked the birth of the modern restaurant industry. Maxwell had incorporated Lessing’s in 1917 and was joined in the business by his son, Lawrence, in the 20's. The advent of national prohibition stripped away liquor profits, shifting emphasis to low-price, high volume food service. More people ate out than ever before. Famous pre-war restaurants closed, while cafeterias, luncheonettes, and tea rooms thrived. Female servers began to replace men.
By the late 1920’s, Lessing’s was serving meals to New York’s workforce in as many as 20 locations, among them lunch rooms at 1 Broadway, 40 Wall St., The Woolworth Building (at the time the tallest building in the world), the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, and The New York Stock Exchange. Conveniently locating lunch counters in the lobbies of newly constructed office buildings was the first great innovation of Lawrence Lessing. It was the fulfillment of the now famous restaurant chain mantra, LOCATION-LOCATION-LOCATION. Ray Kroc took the words right out of Lawrence Lessing’s mouth.
Contract Food Service
In 1928, American Cable and Wireless decided to include an employee cafeteria in their new office building. Providing employees with a cafeteria was an innovation in itself in 1928. However, the vision of Lawrence Lessing trumped even the cafeteria idea. Lawrence, already operating a nascent multi-unit food service operation out of the Lessing commissary in Jones Lane, presented American Cable with a proposition. Rather than American Cable executives having to manage a large cafeteria with all the headaches inherent in such an operation, Lessing’s would manage it for them on a contract basis. For a fee, Lawrence and his staff would take care of everything. With that one creative impulse, the contract food service industry was born in New York City. The Lessing innovation gene had struck again, and Lessing’s was off and running in an entirely new industry.
By the 1930’s, retail stores saw the wisdom in the conveniently located lunch counter and decided to get into the act. The lunch counter business exploded in dense urban centers giving rise to iconic restaurant chains, such as Schrafft’s, Childs, Horn & Hardart, Lofts’, and Bickford’s. It is worth noting that of all these famous restaurant chains, only Lessing’s, the original lunch counter innovator, is still in business.
The War Years
(Excerpted from Lessing Restaurant History commemorating the company's 125 Anniversary)