Lawson’s is back in the U.S.
Unfortunately for locals who fondly remember the dairy store, it’s in Hawaii.
It’s unclear whether the stores will ever reach Ohio again, but the Japanese company that operates the convenience-store chain with more than 10,000 locations is clearly eyeing the United States as an expansion market.
The new stores opened Friday in Waikiki Beach in Honolulu — one inside the Moana Surfrider Westin Resort & Spa and another inside the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.
They go by the name Lawson Station, but still use the familiar turquoise blue sign with a white milk bottle, which has been the company’s icon for decades.
Although an Ohio company for many years, Lawson’s stores were operating only in Japan and other parts of Asia, including China and Indonesia, before the Hawaiian stores opened.
James “J.J.” Lawson started the Lawson’s Milk Co. in 1939, when he opened a dairy store on Home Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls. The company grew to a chain of nearly 200 stores throughout Ohio.
Norman “Red” Lawson, J.J. Lawson’s only surviving child, said he wasn’t surprised by the company’s move back to the United States, because it has been so successful in Japan. “It’s nice to see our name spread all around,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Norman Lawson, 85, and his wife, Frances, reside in Akron.
In 1958, J.J. Lawson sold the stores to Consolidated Foods, which operated Lawson’s in Ohio and other states into the 1980s, and expanded the business to more than 700 stores. In 1984, Consolidated sold the chain to Dairy Mart.
Ten years earlier, however, Consolidated had signed an agreement with Daiei Inc., one of Japan’s largest grocery chains, to operate Lawson’s stores there, with the first opening in 1975.
Eventually, the U.S. stores became Dairy Marts. But after Dairy Mart went bankrupt in 2002, the Canadian company Alimentation Couche-Tard acquired the stores and renamed them Circle K.
Today, the only vestige of the local stores is Lawson’s Original Chip Dip, made by Dairymens Dairy in Cleveland, which continues to be sold at Circle K.
No original recipe
Norman Lawson said he remembers when the dip was developed, but doesn’t have the original recipe.
Under the Lawson name, the company flourished in Japan, becoming the second largest convenience-store operator in that country, behind 7-Eleven. The stores go by the brand names Lawson Station, Lawson Store 100/Shop 99 and Natural Lawson, which focuses on health and beauty products.
Lawson Inc. formed Lawson USA Hawaii Inc. in January to operate the Honolulu stores. The company has announced plans to open 20 to 30 Hawaiian locations within the next three years.
In interviews in the spring, Lawson Chief Executive Takeshi Niinami said that U.S. expansion was a major priority for his company, having reached market saturation in Japan. The chain plans to build 20,000 stores outside Japan, mainly in China and Southeast Asia, by 2020.
With their locations inside resort hotels, the stores are aimed at Japanese travelers, and will carry a variety of Japanese fast foods, beverages, beach goods, sundries and island souvenirs.
While he has never been to the Japanese stores, Norman Lawson said he has read about the company online over the years. “We sold them our name and the concept of the dairy store, but I’m sure it has changed a lot since then,” he said. “They kept the same signage they had when they bought us. I helped to develop it.”
J.J. Lawson was the first to sell milk in gallon-size glass jugs, rather than quarts, and it was that jug that was immortalized in the company logo, which Norman Lawson said was designed by Smith & Scherr Industrial Design of Akron.
Norman Lawson’s memories of the business are vivid, including the first store that opened on Home Avenue in 1939.
Norman’s son, Jim Lawson, a photographer who lives in Westchester, Pa., said the idea to open dairy stores came to his grandfather when he was picking up milk from a farmer.
At the time in the 1930s, milk was still very much a bottle delivery business, and J.J. Lawson was struggling to keep up with larger operations.
One day when he was in the country picking up milk, he saw an Amish woman take a pitcher to a farmer, who filled it up with milk. She reached into her pocket for money, paid him and left.
That simple observation sparked an idea for J.J. Lawson of folks coming to pick up their milk, rather than having it delivered, Jim Lawson said. The dairy stores soon followed.
“Up to that point, he was trying to go toe-to-toe with the big guys doing home delivery. That little thing gave him the idea that turned everything around,” Jim Lawson said.
In 1945, when Norman Lawson was in the service stationed in Germany, he got a letter from his father telling him that he had purchased the former Falls Rubber Co. on Broad Street. The plant became the main dairy and a local landmark, also housing Lawson’s bakery, which supplied bread and packaged pastries to the stores.
Another grandson, Ronald Lawson of Bainbridge, said he thinks the chain would succeed if the expansion ever hits Ohio, particularly if the company brings back some of the iconic Lawson products.
“If they came back with some of the same products that the family had in the stores, I think they would do great here locally, because a lot of people still miss the place,” he said.
Lawson’s products, including the chip dip, ice cream, Big O orange juice and eggnog, were acquired by Dairy Mart, and later Circle K, as part of their respective sales. Dairy Mart discontinued the ice cream and eggnog. Circle K pulled the plug on Big O in 2008. But both Dairy Mart and Circle K continued to sell Lawson’s Original Chip Dip because of its huge local following.
Ronald’s sister, Linda Bjerke of Hudson, said she knew there were Lawson’s stores in Japan, but she was surprised to learn how large the chain had become. Bjerke said she believes her grandfather would have been pleased with the success of the stores bearing his name.
Decision to sell
Ronald and Linda are the children of Richard Lawson, J.J.’s oldest son, who died at age 36 from leukemia. Richard Lawson was president of his father’s milk company when he died.
Norman Lawson said after his brother died, his father decided to sell the company because he was getting older and he felt that Norman, who was 32, was too young to run it.
“I was,” Norman Lawson said. “We sold out and he took the money instead. He made the right decision for the family.”