How Lawson's, a Small Ohio Dairy, Became a Japanese Retail Giant

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Japan and the United States have a long history of not only economic competition, but also cultural exchange. In the U.S., for instance, sushi and anime are popular. And the Japanese long ago adopted baseball and jazz. If that’s old news to you, here’s one America-to-Japan export that might surprise you: U.S. convenience stores.

This story is about one of those stores: an iconic Ohio chain that went extinct here decades ago, only to become one of the most ubiquitous convenience store brands in Japan.

The Birth of Lawson's

A picture of a Lawson's store in 1980. A sign with a milk can and the words "Lawson's" appears on the left and right, and a few kids are walking with their bikes in the parking lot in front of the store.

A Lawson’s in Lakewood, Ohio circa 1980. [Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library]

It was 1939, and J.J. Lawson, the owner of a dairy plant in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, had an idea: rather than having his milk delivered to people’s houses, why not open a store and let people come to him? That was the birth of Lawson’s Milk Company.

Later, he added other staples like eggs, deli meats, and orange juice. And pretty soon, Lawson’s became an early example of what we think of today as a convenience store.

Mention the name “Lawson’s” to Ohioans of a certain age, and you’re likely to elicit a nostalgic grin. Chances are, they’ll even start singing a jingle from an old commercial advertising Lawson’s brand orange juice: “Roll on, Big O.”

You won’t find chip dip at today’s Lawson stores. But you will find many flavors of onigiri, or rice balls. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

“I love that song!” said Roger Lumpkin, a videographer from Cleveland, who said he was about five-years-old when his father, Hezekiah, opened a Lawson’s franchise in East Cleveland.

“I remember my dad wrapping an apron around me, and me putting up the bottled milk jugs,” he said. “The jugs were almost as big as I was!”

Lumpkin, 55, worked at the store until he went to college. By then, the chain had grown to over 700 locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana.

But in 1985, the company’s owner, Sara Lee Corp. (previously known as Consolidated Foods Corp.), sold Lawson’s to Dairy Mart, which later renamed the stores. (After declaring bankruptcy in 2001, Dairy Mart would sell its stores to a Canadian company, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., which converted many of them to Circle K stores).

“I pretty much thought that was the end of Lawson's,” Lumpkin said.

Except it wasn’t.

 

Rolling On: Lawson's Second Life

A Lawson store near the company’s HQ in Tokyo’s Ōsaki neighborhood. The name "Lawson" appears across the awning in bright white letters, in the same old-timey font as the original Lawson store from Ohio.

A Lawson store near the company’s HQ in Tokyo’s Ōsaki neighborhood in 2018. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

Half a world away, the Lawson name lived on in Japan where, in 1975, the company partnered with a Japanese retailer, Daiei, to open a franchise in Toyonaka City.

While Daiei was already a major player in Japan’s supermarket business, the concept of a “convenience store”— something more than a mom-and-pop corner shop, but smaller than a full-blown grocery, was still new to the country. (Another U.S. import, 7-Eleven, made its Japanese debut a year earlier). Japan, with its densely packed cities and increasing taste for modernization, was an ideal environment for the convenience store model. Lawson’s took off.

The front lobby of Lawson company headquarters in Tokyo. A cartoon version of the Lawson emblem sits on a long white counter. Three women wearing matching black and white dresses sit behind the counter.

The front lobby of Lawson company headquarters in Tokyo. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

Today, Lawson has over 14,000 stores in Japan. It’s the number three convenience store brand after 7-Eleven (~21,000 stores), and a homegrown rival called FamilyMart (~17,000 stores). For perspective, there are around 10,000 7-Elevens in the United States and Canada combined.

But the Japanese didn’t just embrace the convenience store. They made it their own.

The food selection, for instance, goes way beyond what you’d find at your typical American gas-and-go, said Michael Jacobs, a retail analyst at T. Rowe Price based in Tokyo. That’s because, in Japan, convenience stores (or “c-stores” as he calls them) compete with restaurants and fast-food joints, he said.

Various flavors of "onigiri," or rice balls," line a shelf inside a Lawson store in Tokyo. The snacks are pressed into triangle shapes and colorfully packaged. Among the many flavors offered are seaweed, salmon, pork, and fish roe.

Lawson, like all typical Japanese convenience stores, carries a wide variety of onigiri, or rice balls. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

At a typical c-store in Japan, you’ll find shelves stocked with rows of freshly made noodles, bento boxes, salads, meat dishes, baked goods, and a dozen varieties of onigiri, or rice balls, which are “probably the single best-selling item at a Japanese convenience store,” according to Jacobs. In a way, he said, the rice ball is to Japanese convenience stores as the hot dog is to U.S. convenience stores (except that rice balls usually haven’t spent who-knows-how-long sweating in one of those rolling heat chambers).

“Japanese convenience stores have the most sophisticated distribution system,” Jacobs said, with an average store receiving a food delivery every eight hours. Some American brands are starting to take cues from their Japanese counterparts, Jacobs said, offering fresher food with more variety. But “that doesn’t mean they’re selling rice balls,” he said.

Lawson's brand french onion chip dip (center), surrounded by a variety of snacks from Lawson in Japan. Although the chip dip isn't carried in Japan, some Circle K stores in the U.S. continue to sell it. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

It’s not just the food (or geography) that makes Japanese convenience stores different from those in the U.S. Walk into just about any Lawson, for instance, and you can order tickets for movies or flights, make photocopies, buy auto insurance, pick up packages that you ordered online, and pay your taxes and utility bills. Also, there’s almost always a public toilet, and you’re not required to buy anything if all you want is to use the restroom.

“You don't even need to get a key,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs says Lawson is a prime example of how foreign brands can adapt to local tastes. For example, in Japan, it’s known as Lawson, while Ohioans called it “Lawson’s” with an “s.” Still, some things are the same. The company colors are blue and white, and the logo is still an old-timey milk can.

Outside a Lawson in Tokyo’s Yushima neighborhood, Sawa Hino, 25, said she goes to Lawson almost every day for lunch and had always thought it originated in Japan. When she was told that the brand actually began almost 80 years ago as a small dairy store in Ohio, her eyes grew wide.

“Ah, that’s why they have a milk bottle on the logo!” she said.

Although she goes to Lawson frequently, she said she isn’t particularly attached to the brand.

Two bowls of food purchased at a Lawson in Tokyo's Hiroo neighborhood. The one on the left contains several vegetables, including carrots, bok choy, and bean sprouts, arranged in a circle on top of rice. The other dish contains brown-colored noodles topped with flakes of dried bonito.

Some dishes from Lawson. In Japan, convenience stores compete with restaurants and fast-food joints, said Michael Jacobs, a retail analyst at T. Rowe Price based in Tokyo, so the selection tends to be much better than your average American gas-and-go. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

But Irene Metz, who grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, said she was sad to see the Lawson’s disappear. Despite being a chain, Metz, 83, said her neighborhood Lawson’s had a “homey” feel.

“I could go in there and say, ‘My mom wants a pack of cigarettes,’” said Metz, “and they had no hesitation of selling it to me as a kid … because [the owner] knew who my mom was.” Metz is the curator of the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society’s museum, which is located a few minutes’ drive from a former Lawson’s food processing plant.

And Roger Lumpkin, whose father ran a Lawson’s in East Cleveland, said he’s still nostalgic for the brand.

“I miss the corner store,” Lumpkin said. “It was so much a part of our community growing up as a kid, and I hope the Japanese find some element of that as well.”

Currently, the company has stores in China, Thailand, the Philippines, and two stores in Hawaii, which it established in 2012.

And while it’s unclear if Lawson’s will ever return to Ohio, Lumpkin said, it’s just cool to see the brand “roll on.”

A Lawson outpost in a Tokyo subway station. [Adrian Ma/ ideastream]

 

For more on the surprising history of Lawson's, check out the video on WVIZ/PBS's "Ideas."

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