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One of the many Lyons Teashops which used to operate throughout the UK

J. Lyons & Co.

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For anyone who lives in Britain, the name J. Lyons should be a familiar one. In most supermarkets across the country, it is possible to buy a Lyons cake, of perhaps a Lyons-Made ice cream of some type. These products are the sold by producers under the name Lyons, and are some of the only references left in modern culture to what was once one of the biggest cafe and Restaurant empires in the UK. J. Lyons & Co. not only owned a massive amount of Teashops, but also had a food manufacturing and distribution service, which supplied the teashops and corner houses. This facility also supplied Lyons products to grocers’ shops throughout Britain. As well as all of this, Lyons also owned a catering service for large scale events, providing the very best in the products the company had to offer to a number of customers. Events included Buckingham Palace garden Parties, Wimbledon, and the Chelsea Flower Show to name but a few.

The company which eventually became known as J. Lyons & Co. did not start out immediately in the catering business. Instead it began life with its origins in the tobacco business. This company was started by Samuel Gluckstein, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia who had moved to London with his father and sibling in 1841. In 1864, Samuel and his brother Henry, along with their cousin Lawrence Abrahams decided to open a modest business in Whitechapel. Their small business employed a number of local people who would then roll the cigarettes and cigars by hand.

Unfortunately, the company the men founded was dissolved only a few short years later in 1870. This was largely due to the fact that the three partners had fallen out amongst each other, and as such a large amount of disagreement followed.

Learning from his previous mistakes, Gluckstien decided to try his hand once more at running a cigar making business in Whitechapel. This time he was joined by his two sons, Isidore and Montague, and another tobacco trader, Barnett Salmon.

Learning from his previous mistakes, Gluckstien decided to try his hand once more at running a cigar making business in Whitechapel. This time he was joined by his two sons, Isidore and Montague, and another tobacco trader, Barnett Salmon.

One of the first things the three put in place was an agreement that placed the assets of the company into a family fund which gave each member of the family a share in the business. This was put in place mainly because the men had in mind the fortunes of the late Samuel’s first tobacco company and the reasons of its downfall, and to the early 1990’s , members of the Salmon and Gluckstein family still lived by the original motto ‘L’union fait la force’ which literally means Strength in Union. It was this motto which led the company through a long future of success, and ultimately led to its eventual downfall in the latter half of the twentieth century.

From humble beginnings, the Salmon & Gluckstein Company soon grew in success. Since the formation of the company until the end of the century, their one store on Whitechapel had soon grew to a franchise of over 140 stores by the mid 1890’s and soon afterwards became the world’s largest tobacconist’s chain. Even during this period, the company was using pioneering ideas which were used by but a few retailers such as WH Smiths. The main idea used was the notion that by selling their products through multiple outlets, they would be able to force down the wholesale prices. This meant that their customers would receive an increased saving as the reduced prices were passed onto them, and this in turn would ensure a strong customer loyalty. Salmon and Gluckstein went on to produce a number of different brands of cigarette, and even started to sell other manufacturer’s products. Although the company was now successfully selling a number of products, they started to bring in a range in incentives for their customers, such as cigarette cards, some of which are still highly collectable even now. Many of the smaller tobacco retailers of the time could only look of with a degree of envy at the success Salmon & Gluckstein enjoyed, although this eventually turned to reluctant admiration for their rival.

During the time of the Salmon & Gluckstein success in the UK, America was enjoying a similar success thanks to a company known as the American Tobacco Company. Founded by J. B. Duke as an amalgamation of a number of smaller independent tobacco retailers the resulting company quickly became a massive success in the States, and started to look overseas in an effort to expand its markets, starting with the purchase of an English company called Ogden. The intentions of American Tobacco were to eliminate all competition in Britain in much the same way he had in America. In defence to this sudden threat, thirteen of the independent tobacconists in the UK decided to merge and form their own larger company. Imperial Tobacco was the result, and to this day still produces a number of cigarette brands such as Embassy and John Player Special. In 1901, Salmon & Gluckstein maintained their independence from Imperial Tobacco. However, just over a year later the chain of tobacconists was sold to Imperial. By this time, the company had a new more profitable venture they were working on...

Montague Gluckstein had in the 1880’s hit upon the idea of catering establishments. His brother and brother-in –law were at first reluctant to warm to the idea, however, Montague protested a very British argument that people should be able to buy a good cup of tea when they were away from home, a sentiment still held dear by many today. He came upon these thoughts when visiting the Manchester Exhibition of 1887. During his visit, when Montague tried to find refreshment of any kind, be it that of a cup of tea, or a pie or sausage from a nearby pub, the exhibition was found to be found wanting in a number of areas. It was eventually agreed by the men that a catering establishment was not such a bad idea, and may be worth pursuing as long as it was not marketed under the Salmon & Gluckstein trading name. This was agreed, and then men then set out to find a man to run the new venture. Joseph Lyons was a distant relative of the family through Isidore’s wife, and had proven himself adept in a number of fields. Montague went to visit Lyons during the Liverpool exhibition of 1886. An agreement was made that the men would go into business together in a catering firm as long as Lyons could win a contract to provide catering for the 1887 exhibition taking place in Newcastle. This would be a very important exhibition as it was taking place to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Joseph Lyons had no previous experience in running a catering firm, but did indeed win the contract. The customers who visited the exhibition were treated to a very reasonable priced menu and lashings of tea. The profits from this exhibition showed the brothers that there was indeed massive and relatively untapped market for catering events such as this, and went on to found what was once known as the largest catering business the world had ever seen. Catering exhibitions and large events such as Newcastle remained a large part of the company’s business for some time, proving to be a great success. In 1894, J. Lyons & Co. became a limited company, and moved into what became its permanent base of operations, an old piano factory known as Cadby Hall.


Cadby Hall. Home to J. Lyons & Co.

At this time, there were a number of different coffee houses and places where someone could buy food such as pies or sausages. However, very few of these matched up to the image that the men wanted for their firm. A gap in the market had been found in which the men opened their first teashop. 1894 saw the launch of the Lyons teashops, which offered reasonable food of a high quality, in a pleasant atmosphere of floral arrangements, marble tabletops and fine china. The success of the first teashop was a model which was repeated numerous times over, until by 1925, there were over 200 teashops in London alone.

During this time, Lyons realised that they would need fresh produce of a high standard delivered to the teashops daily in order to meet with demand. Using the model set up during their time in the tobacconists business, the men set up a massive manufacturing complex at the Cadby Hall site, soon employing thousands of people to ensure that their products were available and made to the highest standards.

Lyons teashops and restaurants each followed the same template; there would be furnishing of the highest fashion, along with ‘reasonably priced’ food of what was considered a very high standard. Instead of the traditional sausage and beer that was offered in most establishments, Lyons teashops sold cream cakes and penny buns along with a hot cup of tea. Each establishment had a team of highly trained waitresses to serve the customers. These ladies were known as ‘Gladys’, but soon became known as ‘Nippies’, a name coined from the fast and friendly service given.

In 1909, Lyons bought the Ceylon Cafe chain, expanding their business into other cities across the country such as Manchester and Liverpool. Over the next few years, the company opened up a number of other outlets ranging from the teashops to more upmarket ventures such as the large Lyons Cornerhouses, venues which offered differing tastes on as many as four different floors, each with its own live band for entertaining the guests. Customers of Lyons were offered a whole host of services in some of their establishments, everything from having a hair cut, to booking theatre tickets.

Lyons operated using this model for a number of years, and was highly successful. However things would take a turn for the worse when the Second World War began...

During the years of the war, Cadby Hall was used as an ordnance factory, as were many manufacturing facilities across the country. Also during this time, due to the fact that many of the men had gone to fight, women moved into the manufacturing sector to work, meaning that Lyons no longer had its Nippies to serve customers. Instead, self service counters were introduced. Also out were the high quality meals and food at affordable prices which Lyons had prided itself on since the launch of the business. Due to rationing and other difficulties of the war, ingredients that before would have been freely available suddenly became scarce, as such, standards in the Lyons teashops and restaurants declined.

Over the course of the war, over seventy of the teashops owned in the Lyons Empire were destroyed by bombing campaigns. Sadly, these were never rebuilt or replaced. The years immediately after the war did not see any improvement for the company. The men came back from the war, but instead of bringing back the Nippies, Lyons decided to remain with the new style self service operation in the teashops. This was because the costs of using the Nippies was now prohibitive. Money coming into Lyons would not cover the wages of the staff in the shops.

Over the next years Lyons took a bold step in creating the LEO I. This became the world’s first business computer, and brought with it a lot of publicity for the company. Eventually this led to the formation of Leo computers as a separate company from Lyons, producing a follow up to this machine for the business world the LEO II. It sold in modest numbers, and was followed by LEO III and the 326 model. Eventually, the company was sold off, as it never actually made a profit. Lyons never actually made a loss on the LEO project, as the money invested matched the money the LEO computer division was sold for - £2 Million. Unfortunately, Sales in the teashops of Lyons continued to lose the company money, despite the fact that the company were now running a successful franchise of Wimpy Bars. These had first been brought to the UK by Lyons in 1954, after seeing their success in America; soon, there were a number of Wimpy restaurants opening throughout the country.

A report commissioned in 1962 showed that the only part of the Lyons catering operation which was making a profit was the London Steak Houses. Despite the work of John Simmons to try and revolutionise the work of Lyons, there was only one option available to the company in order to stem the losses. Lyons had to close the Trocadero and Corner Houses. Due to the fact the teashops were losing a great deal of custom to the new fast food restaurants, the teashops were revamped with a new name – Jolyon.

Gone were the gas lamps and marble from the teashops, to be replaced with Formica tables. A new management structure within Lyons was also implemented. Instead of the Automatic promotion of family members to the managerial levels, and eventually the board, family members would have to work for their position, proving that they were capable of running such an empire.

This worked for Lyons, and the company once again started to show a small amount of profit in the early years of the 1970’s. The company were looking to expand once again, this time by purchasing a number of food manufacturers from around the world. The intention was to create a global market for Lyons products, and hopefully enjoy a period of massive growth and profitability. For the short term, this purchasing was funded by heavy borrowing, but this was not considered a problem as the return on these investments looked to be immense. Unfortunately, 1973 saw the Oil Crisis, which caused interest rates to skyrocket. This increase saddled Lyons with monumental debts, and no option other than to sell key assets in order to pay back what was owed. In 1977, the first of the Lyons teashops, which had been the core of the company since its inauguration, were closed. This continued until 1981, when the last ever Lyons teashop closed its doors for the final time. Over the same period, the hotels owned by Lyons were also sold.

The company was in a terrible state, and was obvious choice for an easy takeover by a larger company. !978 saw such a takeover by Allied Breweries. The name was changed to Allied Lyons, and the Cadby Hall site was demolished. Despite the fact that Lyons still existed in some small capacity as a part of a larger organisation, it can be said that this was the end of one of the world’s largest catering companies for its time.

Today, the Lyons brand still exists, despite the fact that Allied Lyons was renamed Allied Domecq in 1994. These days, brands such as Lyons Cakes, Lyons Tea, and of course Lyons Maid Ice cream can still be found on store shelves throughout the UK, and are made by a number of companies. These products remain as the only legacy from a family business which lasted for almost a century.