Can you solve the mystery before dessert?
“I was a little dubious that serving nothing but prime rib would be appealing to women. I knew men liked roast beef and the majority of them liked it rare, but I didn’t think women would fall for it.”
I didn’t think women would fall for it.
As preparations began for this year’s celebration of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills 75th Anniversary, Corporate Executive Secretary, Gayle Chick, unearthed a fascinating document – one little known even to family members – from the company archives. She had discovered a 62-page transcript of a 1963 conversation between then Advertising Director Gordon Hearn and Lawry’s founder, Lawrence L. Frank.
Ostensibly a record of the first 50 years of the Van de Kamp and Frank families’ businesses, including Van de Kamp’s Bakery and Lawry’s Foods, this rich personal history is also a glimpse into the mind of a true visionary and a window onto a world that seems far removed from us today.
Excerpts from the interview reveal, through the voice of Lawrence himself, a natural salesman and a bold, imaginative entrepreneur possessed of an intuitive grasp of the importance of both design and theatricality in the realization of his ideas. His sense of excitement at the success of these ideas, colored by humor and even a bit of wonder at the grandness of his achievements, is palpable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lawrence Frank’s telling of the story of the first Lawry’s The Prime Rib.
this rich personal history is also a glimpse into the mind of a true visionary and a window onto a world that seems far removed from us today
What better way to kick off our year-long celebration than sharing with you a little of the unique and wonderful tale of one of America’s greatest restaurants in its creator’s own words.
“I had a completed picture of what it would be, what its specialty would be, how it would be served and everything.”
With this recollection of his vision of Lawry’s The Prime Rib 25 years earlier, Lawrence Frank reflects a confidence that animated his many enterprises throughout the first half of the 20th century. Along the way, he relied on the backing and knowledge of others, as well as the hard work of his co-workers, to help bring his dreams to life.
He still felt the sting of the early criticism.
In the 1963 interview, he still felt the sting of the early criticism of his single entrée concept he received from many:
“I think I should mention that while it had been generally thought that my creation was more or less of a brainstorm or harebrained concept, the real fact is that it was not. It was the result of my experience as a youth on alternate Sundays when my mother served a full prime rib of beef which included seven ribs to a large family of six boys, mother and dad and two servants, which was quite a family in those days.”
Lawrence added: “My brother-in-law and business partner, Walter Van de Kamp, was the only one who thought anything of my idea of a one entrée restaurant.”
“I don’t remember exactly why we were led to Beverly Hills and the La Cienega Blvd. area except that there were some successful operations on the street,” he continued. There was a building on La Cienega that had been the site of two failed restaurants.
“We never considered it because the outside was so unattractive. But to our amazement, we found what we had been searching for: very wide aisles and large booths capable of holding five or six people!”
Of course, the extra space would be needed to accommodate the truly unique feature of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, the one element around which the entire concept would revolve: the 600 pound, gleaming silver carts designed by Lawrence himself.
We could maneuver with ease without bumping anyone.
“Actually, our cart is a typical old English design, called a Sheffield Roast Beef Cart with the exception of the base which, in our case, was all stainless steel to make a cabinet in which to keep dishes warm. The original ‘blimp,’ as people called it, looked like one because the top was welded together in metal strips, like an umbrella.
a tremendous impression on people because it was never done this way before
But these strips separated from the heat, so it was redesigned to include a much more beautiful pressed stainless steel lid. Since the new restaurant had these wide aisles and asphalt tile floor, we could maneuver with ease without bumping anyone. We could turn the cart around and make a tremendous impression on people because it was never done this way before.”
But restaurant owners (and potential competitors) on the block voiced some of the strongest opposition to Lawrence’s brainstorm. One such owner was a Mr. Murphy.
“He had a very good reputation for serving very fine roast beef and was very gracious and very friendly. If you knew him though, he was a rough diamond, very uncouth in his speech and just an unusual character.”
Without mincing words, Mr. Murphy asked Lawrence, “Why don’t you stay in a business you know something about? Why do you want to get into a mess? Don’t you think I serve good roast beef? I think it’s absolutely impossible. If I were you, I would get on a train to New York and buy the latest electrical rotisserie, put that in the window and begin serving chicken!”
In spite of this discouraging advice, Lawrence buoyed his partner’s sagging spirits with a salesman’s bravado. “I told Walter, ‘He knows nothing about what our idea is. We are opening a unique restaurant.”
The investment necessary to get the restaurant up and running in the depths of the Depression represented a real risk, however. “We found the U.S Government owned all the fixtures and equipment. We were able to purchase them for $1,800. It was a good buy.”
The $3,000 spent for each of the first two carts was the price of a new Cadillac in 1938. The fact that this cost alone represented 20% of the partners’ total investment showed how much they believed in the ultimate success of the unique tableside service the carts made possible.
With everything in place, Lawry’s The Prime Rib was nearly ready for business. But Lawrence uncharacteristically harbored one nagging doubt. “I was a little dubious that serving nothing but prime rib would be appealing to women. I knew men liked roast beef and the majority of them liked it rare, but I didn’t think women would fall for it.”
He solicited the advice of his friend, Biltmore Hotel Chef Gus Wasser, who routinely offered a ladies luncheon menu of chicken à la king, baked ham or lamb chops. Lawrence explained what he learned: “One time he was on the spot when the hostess of a ladies luncheon for 80 ladies had requested Prime Rib for their meal. He was surprised that the plates came back clean, especially since most of it was rare. So he said, ‘Don’t worry about women liking roast beef!’” That expert opinion was enough to give the anxious restaurateurs the confidence they needed to forge ahead.
80 ladies had requested Prime Rib for their meal.
On June 15, 1938, Lawry’s The Prime Rib opened. The partners agreed to what is known today as a soft opening in the restaurant business. “Walter and I decided to open very conservatively, in a quiet manner to avoid a big splurge and then fail to give good service and good food. We didn’t light up the building but lit the room so it could be seen through the window.”
Without any publicity, within 30 minutes every seat in the place was taken and everybody who was served went out with a tremendously favorable impression.
Under the circumstances, we can understand his pleasure as he recalls opening night. “How to account for this I have never been able to figure, but it was an amazing thing. Without any publicity, within 30 minutes every seat in the place was taken and everybody who was served went out with a tremendously favorable impression. And from that day on, you know the history of Lawry’s.”
Everybody who was served went out with a tremendously favorable impression.
In coming A La Carts, we will continue Lawrence Frank’s own telling of the Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills story. Be sure to look for Part Two: Seeking a Perfect Blend, and Part Three: A Wartime Threat to the Prime Rib’s Survival.