Docents spotlight Chicago’s amazing sites, followed by a three-course dinner at Lawry’s
Susie Frank was born into a family whose businesses spanned generations. Her grandfather, Lawrence Frank, along with his brother-in-law Theodore Van de Kamp, started a potato chip shop in 1915 that led to the creation of Van de Kamp’s Bakeries and Lawry’s The Prime Rib. Her father, Richard N. Frank, built an international spice company based on the success of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and became known as the “king of theme restaurants.” Her brother, Richard R. Frank, is company CEO and Chairman of the Board. Her nephew, Ryan Wilson, is Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef.
Susie entered the business when she started helping her mother, Mary Alice, with company interior decorating chores. Her responsibilities grew exponentially over the years and today she is Director of Design. We asked Susie to talk about her family, design and what she calls “the magic of Lawry’s restaurants.”
First things first. What’s the story behind the photo above?
When I was a little girl, my father was running Lawry’s Foods. They were busy developing a lot of revolutionary dehydrated products.
To promote the new Brown Gravy Sauce Mix, someone, probably my dad, thought I should be in an advertisement that implied how easy it was to make. If an eight-year-old could do it, anybody could. It’s a great souvenir.
Any other special memories of Lawry’s Foods?
The company was sold a long time ago in the ‘70s, but I clearly remember going to the office with my dad whenever I could. I would try to trail behind him most of the day. I’ll never forget the unique aroma of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt in every hallway and room.
Sometimes, I delivered mail around the building. No one on my route seemed to mind when I barged in. It gave me a chance to explore the impressive complex at will. I loved to look through the big glass picture windows to watch the assembly lines—noisy machines rapidly filling spice bottles and mix packages, slapping on labels, placing the products in boxes ready for a fork lift to cart them off to the huge storage facility behind.
Then there was the test kitchen with its closet-sized “blackout room.” You’d sit at one of three chairs and the lights were turned off. Someone would push small plates of food through a cubbyhole to be sampled and compared in the dark. After the lights came back on, you’d fill out a detailed score card rating things like saltiness, flavor, smell and texture. I took “my job” very seriously.
I remember quietly sitting in on some design meetings, too. At one of them, I met a very nice man named Saul Bass. It was early in his career and he’d been hired by my father to submit ideas for a new logo. He came up with the iconic “fanciful L’’ symbol for Lawry’s and would go on to be the most famous graphic designer of the twentieth century. Lucky us!
How important is design to the success of Lawry’s restaurants?
It’s always been very important. My grandfather brought a showman’s sensibility to everything he did. I think both he and my father intuitively knew that, if they provided a memorable experience beyond simply satisfying people’s hunger, whether it was for potato chips, baked goods or prime rib, customers would come back for more. Their creativity and imagination naturally led them to innovative design ideas that propelled all their businesses over the years and helped create the “magic” you still feel today at our restaurants.
When did you first feel the magic of Lawry’s restaurants?
When I went to the Tam O’Shanter as a little kid. I felt like Scotland was just on the other side of the front door. How could that be possible in sunny California?
Of course, there’s still no place like Lawry’s The Prime Rib. When I was young, there was only the one in Beverly Hills. It was the fanciest restaurant my family went to.
We’d all get dressed up for dinner. On arrival, pulling in under the tall porte cochere, and just seeing the valet parking attendants would fill me with excitement and anticipation. The place would be humming. It sounds a little trite now, but I was honestly awed by what I saw inside: the sheer size of it, the big booths filled with people, the fabulous silver carts, steered around the room by medallion wearing carvers, the servers in their crisp brown dresses. It was truly magical.
Did the same feeling hold true for the other restaurants your father established on Restaurant Row?
The Mediterrania was very atmospheric with its dark cave-like space and gaudily colored server costumes. Best of all, was the elaborately decorated Sicilian hurdy gurdy carrying two wine barrels. My brother, sister and I loved to turn the crank on the cart and hear the funny music it made—probably to the annoyance of the diners.
The tiki torches, turquoise tiled waterfall and chicly attired hostesses made Stear’s exotic to me. At one time, the bar’s lush tropical garden was converted into a putting green. It was hilarious and turned out to be my grandfather’s favorite place to hang out.
Only later, did I fully appreciate that the design of everything in all our restaurants has always been thoroughly considered—from the sign out front to the interior color palette, lighting, artwork, uniforms, chair fabrics, down to the menu and even the check holder. Today, as Director of Design, my eyes are on all these details and more.
What’s your approach to the design process and the future of Lawry’s Restaurants?
I’d love to be able to go a little wild, but we’re often limited by the age and architecture of our buildings and by our restaurants’ themes. For instance, in the Prime Ribs, we need room for our carts, at Five Crowns we need to maintain the English atmosphere. We usually collaborate with design firms who help us realize our vision.
Ultimately, we want our guests to feel they’re in a world that only exists within the walls of a Lawry’s restaurant. To be honest, the process is always a challenge, sometimes aggravating, but mostly fun.
I’m proud that we’ve managed to balance change and innovation with continuity and tradition throughout our long history. No matter what design decisions we make in the future, we’ll do our best to keep the magic going.