A FAMILY OF INNOVATORS (1890-1940)
The oldest family-owned, continuously operated, highly diverse food service company 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 six 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 sixteen high-end wedding and catering venues, 9 full service restaurants, a 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 over 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's 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
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, New York City was transformed into the metropolitan epicenter of America's massive war effort. Every inch of office space in the buildings around Wall Street, where the Lessing's chain of coffee shops was located, was given over to the war effort in one way or another. In a laboratory at Columbia University, Enrico Fermi began work on atomic particles that led to the top secret development of the atomic bomb called the Manhattan Project. This work on uranium enrichment took place in secret offices located in the Woolworth building above the Lessing's coffee shop. Across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Pfizer Company converted an enormous ice plant into history's first penicillin factory and began the wartime manufacture of their life saving discovery. The Brooklyn Navy Yard quickly became the world's largest shipbuilding facility employing more than 75,000 people by 1942. The port of New York became the primary point of embarkation for the millions of U.S. soldiers shipped overseas to the war zone. Between 1942 and 1945, 1.86 million New Yorkers themselves joined the armed forces. Lessing's was located at the epicenter of this maelstrom and responded by rapidly expanding production and coffee shop locations.
LAWRENCE LESSING JR.
Lawrence Lessing Jr., perhaps the greatest salesman the Lessing clan would produce, responded to New York's exploding demand to feed millions of non-combatant wartime support personnel by rapidly expanding the company's coffee shop locations to five additional buildings in lower Manhattan and doubling the commissary staff on Jones Lane. Like so many other iconic American companies who responded to wartime demand, Lessing's emerged from the war a more substantial and professional company prepared to thrive during the post war economic boom that would engulf the nation.
The "Happy Days" of the 1950's were the perfect setting for Lawrence's innovative personality. Prior to the explosion in demand brought on by World War II, small businessmen saw themselves as humble shopkeepers. They were good at working hard tending to the nuts and bolts of their businesses. Small food service operators were usually good in the kitchen and rarely stepped out from behind the counter to embrace the bigger picture. Lawrence Lessing Jr., however, saw the potential of making connections with the movers and shakers of the industries booming around him. He decided to leave the day to day operations to trusted employees while he told the Lessing story to decision makers who could use Lessing's expertise but didn't know it yet. He came out from behind the counter and called on every company executive who would listen. This innovative change in the role of the humble shopkeeper transformed Lessing from a little lunch counter operator into a highly regarded food service contractor. With the handsome and personable Lawrence leading the way, Lessing's began to handle the food service for America's corporate giants like New York Trust, Chemical Bank, Reynolds & Co., Smith Barney, Goldman Sachs, Regis Paper, and the New York Stock Exchange.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Because of Lawrence's success in making Lessing's a well-known name in food service management, Lessing's was becoming a far more substantial and complex firm by the end of the 1950's. It was time for the next generation of Lessings to step up and guide the company into the modern age. Lawrence's son, John, joined the company in 1958 and John's brother, Lawrence III, followed a year later. Inspired by their father's love of the business, and with the Lessing gene working its particular magic, the brothers adopted very different roles in guiding Lessing's. Jack, like his father, was an expansive visionary who could connect with the wide variety of constituents that Lessing's now served, while Lawrence put his orderly logical mind to the task of managing the now highly complex, day to day business.
THE 1960'S AND 70'S
The team, again, proved to be Lessing magic. The 60's and 70's were very difficult for food service in the New York metropolitan area. For the first time in history, the population of New York City began to decline. War time industries either closed or moved to more economic locations. The New York City economic boom created by the war and the immediate post war period had created formidable competition. Companies such as Schrafft's, Child's, Savarin, Horn and Hardart, and Stouffer's were all competing for both the coffee shop and the food service management dollar. The Wall Street banks would suffer two major recessions, and an industry reorganization moved most of the corporate headquarters' employees away from Wall Street. Culinary unions were ascendant during this period and eventually organized the Lessing bakers on 155 West 19th Street. The food service boom had ended, and the decades of the 60's and 70's would challenge the Lessing brothers to find new methods and new markets in which to do business.
CITY MOUSE - COUNTRY MOUSE
Millions of Americans followed Abraham Levitt's lead and moved to the suburbs in the 1950's. Living in Islip, Long Island, the Lessings were no strangers to the suburbs. Therefore, it was natural for them to expand their business beyond their Wall Street epicenter. They signed food service management contracts to feed Maxson Electronics, American Airlines, Michelin Tire, and Great American Insurance Co. These strategic moves would change the face of their business and prove to be the salvation of the company. Jack and Larry Lessing successfully combined strategic thinking, aggressive marketing, and careful management of detail to guide Lessing's through the two most difficult economic decades in modern food service history. As Manhattan became a more competitive market, Jack and Larry expanded the company to the suburbs and continued the transformation of their company from a local chain of office building lunch counters to a regional food service management powerhouse. Another generation of Lessings made the correct instinctive choices that kept the company growing and thriving when others had failed.
DIVERSIFICATION (1980 - PRESENT)
Tight-knit Irish clans are often guided by an invisible hand. When I asked Jack Lessing, the Chairman of Lessing's, when the family first got into the retail restaurant business he answered, "It wasn't until 1977. My mother, a devout Irish Catholic, never wanted the family to sell liquor."
But in 1977, a friend of Jack's told him that the only bar in Breezy Point, (the now world famous New York Irish Police and Fireman's community destroyed in Hurricane Sandy) was for sale. The Bay Terrace Bar was the only pub in a community of 3,800 homes occupied by New York's Firefighters and Policemen. "It was a gold mine," Jack said. "We used to sell 250 cases of beer on a Saturday night. That was a lot of beer in 1977." Lessing was hooked. The family began to diversify beyond contract food service into the retail restaurant business at just the right time.
Contract food service, a business that Lessing's had originated and built for 40 years, was becoming a commodity business by the late 1970s. Once the industry saw the food service market niche that Lessing's had created, everyone got into the business. Big corporations like Servomation and the Canteen Corporation joined hundreds of small independent contractors in increasing competition until there were 8 or 9 bids submitted on every account. "Our B&I business was still strong because our customers were loyal, but it became harder and harder to make a profit in contract food service," Jack Lessing said. He saw how the cash flow from the Bay Terrace Bar could supplement the reliable but slim margins in contract foodservice, so he began to diversify into retail restaurants.
THE MAIN STREET INNOVATION
Prior to the 1980s, restaurant chains were not well received on Long Island, so few national chains bothered to open units in one of the nation's most densely populated suburbs. Long Islanders seemed to feel more comfortable with local restaurants. The Lessings knew that any restaurant they opened must feel like a "local joint". They watched the success of the Bay Terrace Bar and waited for the Lessing innovation impulse to kick in. Eventually, they decided to open cafes that would serve the local clientele along Montauk Highway, the road that had become the Main Street of Long Island's south shore villages. They would locate them in historic town buildings that the long-time residents were familiar with. In 1980, the Lessings opened their first Main Street restaurant in the historic post office building that had served the town of Babylon for many years. The Post Office Café was immediately seen by Babylon customers as a local place they were comfortable in. It was an instant success and has been going strong for 35 years.
By the 1980s, the Main Streets along Long Island's South Shore were becoming gentrified by the growth of more modern shopping centers opening on the Sunrise Highway.
With the Post Office Café booming, the Lessings migrated east along the Montauk Highway to the little town of Bay Shore and opened their second Main Street Restaurant in the town's original fire house. The youth of Suffolk County instantly made the Firehouse the most popular young club on all of Long Island. Thirty years later the Lessings purchased the historic Southside Hotel, Bay Shore's original "local joint" across the street from the Firehouse.
History will record that Lessing's Main Street restaurant concept ignited a revival movement that has brought these old historic Long Island Main Streets back to life.
When the original library closed in Farmingdale, Long Island, the Lessings bought the building and opened another Main Street restaurant, the Library Café. Each restaurant's success drove the Lessings along the same strategic path; find and purchase historic Long Island buildings that were icons to the local clientele. They opened Maxwell's on Main Street in Islip and bought the Huntington landmark, Finnegan's, perhaps the most "local" of all their Main Street pubs and cafés.
During the 1970s and 80s, Lessing's was also operating over 100 concession locations at state, county, and town parks from Montauk to Long Beach. They were the biggest picnic caterers in the state, at times feeding as many as 10,000 people. They operated the concessions at the now legendary Hecksher State Park, Eisenhower Park, Bethpage State Park, Sunken Meadow, and Tobay Beach.
In the 90s, the Lessings made another strategic decision when they purchased the most historic and iconic building of all, the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook, Long Island. Built in 1751, the Three Village Inn had served as a summer house, a Women's Exchange, a simple tea room, and a fine country inn. In this historic location, the Lessings expanded beyond their pub and cafe style Main Street Restaurants to enter the fine dining segment with their now famous Mirabelle Restaurant & Tavern.
The Saxon Arms restaurant in Oakdale enjoyed the best waterfront view of the Great South Bay anywhere on Long Island. Lessing's bought this local favorite, changed the name to (what else?) the View, refurbished the building and the menu, and now operates the most popular dockside restaurant on Long Island's South Shore.
The insight to appeal to local tastes by instantly becoming part of the local cultural heritage was a brilliant innovation. During the 1990s, the Lessings began a rapid expansion into the catering business by utilizing the same innovative instinct that served them so well in retail restaurants.
Long Island was comprised of rural farms and small seaport villages until the turn of the 20th century when the great family fortunes created by the industrial revolution built vast estates on Long Island. More than 1200 grand estates were built along the North Shore's "Gold Coast" of Great Gatsby fame. Many of these mansions remain in existence throughout Long Island to this day.
By the 1950s, grand-estate living was going out of style, and many of the mansions were turned over to colleges, charities, and religious orders. Knowing that these estates were considered the best addresses in many local towns and villages, the Lessings decided to lease, license, or buy them for catering locations. What local bride would not want to be married in the grandest estate house in her village?
Lessing's now offers Long Island brides the opportunity to hold their wedding reception at Bourne Mansion, Whitby Castle, Chateau at Coindre Hall, Mansion at Timber Point, Mansion at West Sayville, The Vineyards in Aquebogue, and Estate at Three Village Inn, to name just a few. These iconic locations have become so popular that Lessing's now caters more than 1,000 weddings a year.
Today Lessing's operates 80 Contract Food Service locations in Education and in Business & Industry, five Main Street restaurants, three fine-dining restaurants, sixteen catering facilities, a country inn and six Blaze Fast Fire'd Pizza franchises. The company employs more than 1,500 people, and is now ranked in the top 40 food service companies in the U.S. This highly complex and diversified food service company is still managed by the present generation of Lessings.
In this history I have attempted to reveal the secrets of longevity and consistency that enabled Lessing's to survive and thrive for over 125 years in the world's most competitive food service market. How did each generation attract the next generation into the business? How did they survive ever-changing tastes, a volatile commodity market, two world wars, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, inevitable family squabbles, an increasingly contentious legal environment, and stiff competition from well-financed public companies? What was the magic?
Each Lessing generation, from Maxwell to the present, never took survival for granted. They responded to changing market conditions with CREATIVE INNOVATION.