If you were born in the 1970s in Britain, you’re unlikely to remember Joe Lyon’s teashops. J. Lyons & Co was a very large British restaurant chain, food manufacturing, and hotel conglomerate founded in 1887. It is best remembered for its chain of 250 tea shops, the first of which opened in 1894 and the last of which closed in 1981, and for the posh Lyons Corner Houses in the West End of London. It was said there was a Lyons teashop every 100 yards in the centre of London.
J. Lyons & Co was named after Joseph Nathaniel Lyons, who was appointed by the owners, the Salmon and Gluckstein families, as a ‘front man’ to run a pilot teashop at exhibitions. His name was used because it was felt to be beneath the dignity of the families to go into catering. By the 1950s and 60s the teashops had become quick stops for busy shoppers where one could drink a cup of tea and eat a snack or an inexpensive 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. There was competition from ABC teashops which had a more modern look about them – ABC stood for Aerated Bread Company – but the ABCs were considered a little more down-market than their counterparts.
Before the Second World War service uniformed waitresses, known as ‘Nippies’, would serve you at your table, but after the War the tea shops were converted to cafeteria service. At the end of a long counter, before the cash register, were steaming water urns for the tea (coffee drinkers were in a minority), with rows of cups set out ready to be filled. In the middle of the counter, much of the hot food was served from square steel compartments stacked on top of each other (to be replaced later by bains maries), into which staff would insert plates of food from their side and you had to lift the ‘doors’ of the compartments to try to find your chosen meal. The tables had formica plastic tops – no tablecloths like in the corner houses – with invariably a bottle of Lee & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce on it, together with salt and pepper pots, and an ash tray.
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. On the ground floor was a food hall with counters, and on the upper floors was the restaurants, each with a different theme and all with their own musicians.
The company was run from its vast headquarters, Cadby Hall, at 66 Hammersmith Road, Olympia in London. At the peak of the Lyons operations, the entire stretch of land along the Hammersmith Road between Blythe Road and Brook Green became one vast manufacturing enclosure with over 30,000 staff working there.
In 1947, two senior managers visited the United States to see if there had been any significant progress in business processes which could be useful for Lyons. One thing did interest them, the use of digital computers for technical calculations (they were obviously unaware of the computers secretly built at Bletchley Park in the Second World War to break German codes). J. Lyons were able to get the help of three Cambridge boffins, Maurice Wilkes, John Pinkerton and David Caminer, in developing a programmable computer that could process business information. The new computer, which was called LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), became operational on 17 November 1951, and its first task, was weekly valuations for the bakery division, calculating margins on Lyon’s output of bread, cakes and pies. Three years later, LEO was preparing the payslips of the 1,700 weekly-paid employees at the Lyons bakery at Cadby Hall. LEO was such a success that Lyons set up a commercial subsidiary to sell computers to other businesses. In a speech in Edinburgh in 2011, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google said ‘It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by J. Lyons, who ran a chain of tea shops’.
By the 1960s, the company was losing money but remained under the control of the Salmon family, descended from a founding partner. In 1978, Lyons was acquired by Allied Breweries and became part of the resulting Allied Lyons. This was broken up in the late 1980s, with the ice cream and ice lolly products being sold to Nestlé in 1992. After multiple changes of ownership, Lyons Cakes ended up being owned by Weetabix, and Lyons Biscuits by Burton’s Foods Ltd. The computer business was merged with English Electric and then with Marconi’s computer interests to form English Electric LEO Marconi Computers which became International Computers Limited, (ICL), which was bought by Fujitsu in 1990.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once worked as a chemist for the company helping to develop methods for preserving ice cream.