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J. Lyons & Co. was a market-dominant British restaurant-chain, food-manufacturing, and hotel conglomerate founded in 1887 by Joseph Nathaniel Lyons whose idea of a chain of Tea Shops with familiar white fronts with Gold Lettering led him to bid for the Catering Rights for the Great Wembley Exhibition. Once he won the contract he was under capitalised. Salmon & Gluckstein families had a chain of Tobacconists with S&G Libraries in back rooms, they joined Joe Lyons to finance and run the business which expanded so rapidly. He retained only a sole interest in his Covent Garden Wholesale Fruit & Veg business and retired to Brighton. J.Lyons & Co the worlds greatest food empire was created and run by the families of Salmon & Gluckstein including the Joseph Family who were Bovis Builders.
J. Lyons & Co. was a pioneer in introducing computers to business. Between 1947 and 1963, the company manufactured and sold a range of LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) computers.
To the public, J. Lyons & Co. were best known for their chain of tea shops which began in 1894 and finally closed in 1981, and for the Lyons Corner Houses in the West End of London. The tea shops were slightly more up-market than their ABC (Aerated Bread Company) counterparts. They were notable for their interior design, from the 1920s Oliver P. Bernard being consultant artistic director. Until the 1940s they had a certain working-class chic, but by the 1950s and 60s they were quick stops for busy shoppers where one could get a cup of tea and a snack or a cheap and filling meal. The tea shops always had a bakery counter at the front, and their signs, art nouveau gold lettering on white, were a familiar landmark (before the Second World War service was to the table by uniformed waitresses, known as 'Nippies', but after the War the tea shops converted to cafeteria service).
The Corner Houses, which first appeared in 1909 and remained until 1977, were noted for their art deco style. Situated on or near the corners of Coventry Street, Strand and Tottenham Court Road, they and the Maison Lyonses at Marble Arch and in Shaftesbury Avenue were large buildings on four or five floors, the ground floor of which was a food hall with counters for delicatessen, sweets and chocolates, cakes, fruit, flowers and more. As well as this they had hairdressing salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and at one period a twice-a-day food delivery service. On the other floors were several restaurants, each with a different theme and all with their own musicians. For a time the Corner Houses were open 24 hours a day, and in their heyday each one employed in the region of 400 staff. They were colourful and bustling, with bright lights and ingenious window displays designed by Kay Lipton (née Man). In the post-war gloom, the Corner Houses, smarter and grander than the local tea shops, provided a degree of escapist relaxation. Between 1896 and 1965 Lyons also owned the Trocadero, which was similar in size and style to the Corner Houses.
As well as the tea shops and Corner Houses, Lyons ran other large restaurants such as the Throgmorton in Throgmorton Street (pictured above). Their chains have included Steak Houses (1961–1988), Wimpy Bars (1953–1976), Baskin-Robbins (1974-) and Dunkin' Donuts (1989-).
The Regent Palace Hotel, Glasshouse Street, London was operated by Strand Hotels Limited, a subsidiary of J. Lyons and Company and opened on 16 May 1915. Strand Hotels also operated the Cumberland Hotel (Marble Arch, London), Kingsley Hotel, Park Court Hotel, Windsor Hotel, White's Hotel and the Strand Palace Hotel after the inception of Strand Hotels Limited. The last London hotel that they operated until the demise of the group in the mid-70s was the Tower Hotel situated by Tower Bridge in London.
In 1938, Lyons purchased the Bee Bee Biscuit Company, which manufactured biscuits from its factories in Blackpool. Six years later, Lyons changed the company's name to Symbol Biscuits Ltd. and began selling biscuits under the Symbol and Lyons brand names: one of their innovations was Maryland Cookies in 1956. In 1990, Lyons changed the Symbol Biscuits name to Lyons Biscuits Ltd.
The rearmament period just before World War II saw a big expansion in the number of Royal Ordnance Factories, (ROFs), which were UK government-owned. However, due to shortages of management resources some ROFs were run as Agency Factories; and J. Lyons and Co. ran at least one ROF, ROF Elstow (Bates, 1946). The management and stock control systems needed in the ROFs, in respect of control of raw materials and "perishable" finished products, were somewhat similar to those used in the catering business; and J. Lyons was ideally suited to this task. They do not appear to have any involvement in managing these after 1945, when the ROFs started to run down.
The top management of Lyons, with its background in the use of mechanical adding machines, saw the potential of new electrical computers for organising the distribution of cakes and other highly perishable goods. They, therefore, built their own programmable digital computers and became the first user of these in businesses, with the LEO I digital computer: the Lyons Electronic Office I, designed and built by Dr John Pinkerton under the able leadership of John Simmons. It handled the company's accounts and logistics. Lyons also included the weather forecast to ensure goods carried by their "fresh produce" delivery vans were not wasted in large quantities. Google chairman Eric Schmidt called this "the world's first office computer", built in 1951.
The company was losing money in the 1960s but remained under the control of the Salmon family, descended from a founding partner. Lyons began to close some of its London tea shops and hotels; in 1963 it also merged its LEO Computers business with English Electric's computer interests to form the jointly owned English Electric LEO.
In 1964, Lyons sold their half-stake; and English Electric merged the company with Marconi's computer interests to form English Electric LEO Marconi Computers. A continuing problem in the British computer industry was both lack of investment capital and competition with the much larger U.S. computer companies, such as IBM. English Electric LEO Marconi Computers became International Computers Limited, (ICL), but ICL has now also disappeared as a UK computer company.
In 1978, Lyons was acquired by Allied Breweries and became part of the resulting Allied Lyons. It fell on hard economic times in the late 1980s; and was sold, eventually being broken up with its ice cream and ice lolly products, which were branded as Lyons Maid, being sold to Nestlé. Other parts that were sold off included Lyons Cakes being sold to RHM and ending up as part of their Manor Bakeries subsidiary which also makes Mr Kipling's Cakes and Ready Brek cereal ending up being owned by Weetabix Limited. At the end of 1994, Lyons sold its Lyons Biscuits Ltd. to Hillsdown Holdings, which later sold it to a U.S. investment firm which subsequently sold it to large biscuit manufacturer Burton's Foods Ltd..
The J. Lyons & Co. papers are now stored in the London Metropolitan Archives. The niece and nephew of the Gluckstein brothers were Hannah Gluckstein, a painter; and Louis Gluckstein, a Conservative politician.
Margaret Thatcher worked as a chemist for the company prior to becoming a Conservative Party MP in 1959, and while working for them she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream. She would go on to lead the Conservative Party in 1975, becoming Britain's first female prime minister in 1979 and serving until 1990.
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