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Would you believe the history of Lawry’s is rooted in a “root” vegetable? Well, it’s not. But it does stem from a “stem” vegetable. Yes, the humble potato—along with entrepreneurial energy fueling an enduring partnership between two families—opened the door to over a century of success in multiple businesses including our famous prime rib restaurants.
In 1910, Ralph Frank, second youngest of five brothers, left his Milwaukee hometown for the “promised land” of Los Angeles, where he opened a small company making Saratoga Chips. Today known as potato chips, they were first created in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853 and had become a favorite east coast snack.
Even before Ralph’s departure from Wisconsin, his younger brother, Lawrence, had, at the age of 20, developed and sold a snack food himself. Named for his wife-to-be, Henrietta Van de Kamp, “Darling Henrietta’s Nutty Mixture”—a combination of candy coated nuts and raisins—came in a colorful box featuring a cellophane window, the first of a lifetime of innovations from the future creator of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.
Lured by Ralph’s description of life in warm and beautiful Southern California and his offer of a job selling potato chips, Lawrence boarded a train for Los Angeles in 1912 to seek his fortune. Within a year, he convinced Henrietta to join him, and the young couple were married in Ralph’s house shortly after her arrival. Two years later, Lawrence became disenchanted working for his brother and, after talking his way into a job as a furniture salesman in Pasadena, settled there with his bride.
Not long after, Henrietta’s oldest brother, Theodore Van de Kamp, visited and fell under the Southland’s spell. He moved into a YMCA in East LA, worked as an insurance investigator and came for dinner at Lawrence and Henrietta’s every other Sunday. Unhappy in his job, and down to the last of his nest egg, Theodore asked his brother-in-law if he had any investment ideas before throwing in the towel and returning Milwaukee.
As a matter of fact, Lawrence did. He proposed they use Theodore’s remaining $400—half of which he’d loan to Lawrence to make them equal partners—to open a retail potato chip shop selling directly to walk-up customers in downtown Los Angeles. Luckily, they found an eight-foot wide, two hundred-foot long space in a building on a street in decline but with plenty of pedestrian traffic. The same day, without consulting his understandably slack-jawed brother-in-law, Lawrence agreed to pay the landlord a quarter of their total funds to cover the first month’s rent of $100, about $2400 today. The remaining money would go toward making Lawrence’s vision a reality.
The shop would be called Van de Kamp’s Saratoga Chips. In an era before food safety regulations, Lawrence wanted to capitalize on the Dutch reputation for cleanliness that the Van de Kamp name conveniently provided. Pristine white paint and walls covered by white and blue tile patterned oilcloth would reinforce the prominent sign’s message: “Made Clean, Kept Clean, Sold Clean.” Chips would tumble down a chute inside giving the illusion they were made in the back “fresh every minute.” Henrietta would stitch together the blue “Dutch Girl” uniforms, complete with winged white caps that she and her recently arrived sister, Marion Van de Kamp, would wear as the store’s first employees.
Of course, Ralph Frank was the obvious choice to supply the potato chips. When the shop was ready, Lawrence invited Ralph to come to 236 1/2 Spring St. without telling him why. When he saw the sign, the older Frank stewed mightily at not being let in on the idea from the beginning, but agreed to supply fresh, hot chips straight from the kettle in his factory a mile away in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon and evening. On January 6, 1915, Van de Kamp’s Saratoga Chips opened and within two hours the chips sold out.
The brothers-in-law quickly opened two more chips stores downtown. Soon, potato shortages drove prices sky-high, so salted nuts and cookies were added to the line of goods offered at the store. As a result, explained the seventy-six-old Lawrence in a 1963 interview, “We drifted into the bakery business.”
Lawrence’s creativity and outgoing personality proved the perfect complement to Theodore’s quiet, exacting attention to the details of money management essential to a well-run enterprise. Van de Kamp Saratoga Chips would mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship between two families first united by marriage and nurtured by success for four generations.
Today, Lawry’s the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, Dallas and Las Vegas and the Tam O’Shanter make delicious potato chips fresh in-house every day. This long-standing tradition keeps us connected to the little shop that started it all.