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Book Notes: The First Food Empire: A History of J. Lyons & Co., Peter Bird

Malcolm Brown

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The First Food Empire: A History of J. Lyons &amp; Co., Peter Bird (Phillimore, Chichester, 2000) ISBN 1-86077-132-7, 382 pp. Many of the middle-aged among us feel a certain sadness that apart from a museum example of the distinctive white and gold-leaf fascia fitting, few brand items survive to commemorate the firm which gave the noun 'Nippy5 to the Oxford English Dictionary, and whose reputation for catering made Lyons Corner Houses the most frequented teashops of the last century. Peter Bird has taken great pains over this full-scale portrait of the company. The Salmons and Glucksteins, who ran the business for nearly ninety years, started as small-time cigar makers and soon became the world's largest retail tobacconists, owning 140 shops by 1901. Well before then, they saw few long-term prospects in this field and turned to exhibition catering, choosing a distant relation, Joe Lyons, to manage the organization. Lyons and Montague Gluckstein, both natural showmen, helped keep the firm in the public eye. Pre-World War I reports in the Jewish Chronicle record Lyons5s responsibility as caterers at special communal occasions, but more regular work was needed to provide employment for the growing family. The first teashop opened - on strict temperance principles - in 1894. It was soon clear that only by supplying their own fare could Lyons give value for money. Cadby Hall production flourished to such an extent that the company became a household name for tea, bakeries and ice-cream, operated its own food laboratory (where Margaret Thatcher worked for two years before her marriage) and built in 1951 the world5s first commercial computer, because their complex accounts could be handled in no other way. And thanks to the persistence of Lena 228</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes Salmon, Lyons developed a health-and-welfare department that other large firms of the time regarded as a model of its kind. Included among the appendices are two family trees. Many of the early Salmons and Glucksteins married their first cousins, a practice that con? tinued, unusually, into a second generation. Of the few who chose a career outside the business the most notable were Sir Louis Gluckstein, once leader of the London County Council, and the barrister Cyril Salmon, eventually a Lord of Appeal. Honours, of course, came to a number of directors who devoted themselves to public life; to Sir Isidore Salmon for instance, a com? munal leader both of whose sons (Samuel and Julian) were also knighted. Many who read this book will buy it as a souvenir of family gatherings, surely at their most lavish at the Trocadero, the building cost of which nearly ruined the company in 1896. For every diner at 'the Troc' there were literally mil? lions of teashop customers, whose loyalty was fortified by offering an excep? tional range of goods served cheerfully in surroundings that were often quite splendid. 'I like Mr Lyons, he feeds my people well', Edward VII is reputed to have said. Peter Bird is to be congratulated on presenting so satisfying an account of how it was that 'Joseph the Provider', and his followers, achieved such popular success. He is equally readable on the causes of the firm's later, and widely regretted, decline. Malcolm Brown</page></plain_text>