Within the walls of Lawry’s California Center on Tuesday, city employees, businessmen and businesswomen, tourists and retirees found a bit of relief from the urban grind, eating their lunches under the shade of giant willow trees in a courtyard of carefully tended lawns and flower beds.
It was a typical crowd at the hacienda-like hideaway at the corner of San Fernando Road and Avenue 26. But many patrons found their dining pleasure flavored with a touch of distress.
The Thomas J. Lipton Co.--which has owned Lawry’s Foods since 1979--recently announced that it will close the restaurants Jan. 3 and is searching for a buyer.
“It hit me the same as if someone had said they were going to close USC,” said Barbara Richards, 61, of Canoga Park, who was eating lunch with her husband, as she has done once a month since he retired five years ago. “It’s an institution here. . . . It is a little Shangri-La.”
“Regardless of the weather outside, it always seems to have perfect weather in here,” her husband chimed in.
Other loyal patrons also expressed a deep sense of loss at the passing of the restaurant.
“It’s a paradise place. I’m just sick about it,” said Margaret Dickerson, who works at the Lummis Home museum a short distance away and regularly sends out-of-town visitors to the center for lunch. “It’s like a mini-vacation.”
The complex, reminiscent of a more elegant, leisurely time in Southern California’s history, is in a run-down neighborhood near a railroad yard and a confluence of freeways. It opened in 1953 as a combination corporate headquarters and spice factory.
The first restaurant, which featured Mexican and Southwestern-style entrees designed to showcase Lawry’s seasonings and sauces, opened in 1970. Two more restaurants were added later to handle the large numbers of people who flocked to the center to tour the factory and to eat.
The seasoning and sauce factory, which offered public tours and attracted about 50,000 visitors a year, closed earlier this year, and the operations relocated to factories in Missouri and Maryland.
Howard Schwimmer, 30, an industrial real estate broker, used to visit the center with his parents when he was a child, and now meets there with business colleagues.
“I remember it as a really neat experience,” he said. “I never associated it with being in an industrial area.”
Nancy Trask, who lives in San Gabriel, said that for the last seven years, she has frequented the center every six weeks, for a long-standing appointment lunch with a friend who lives on the west side of Los Angeles.
“It was an ideal meeting spot,” she mourned. “It was right in the middle. Now where will we meet?”
Jack Grundeen, an engineer with the Los Angeles City Fire Department who was eating lunch there with four colleagues while their firetruck was being repaired up the street, said he was extremely surprised to hear of the restaurant’s closing.
“I thought this was a booming business,” he said.
But although the restaurant complex was usually busy during the noon hour, on Friday afternoons, or before Dodger games, Lipton officials said, the center never made a profit. Because all the seating was outdoors, the restaurant’s business was too affected by the vagaries of the weather, they said.
Lawry’s officials have said they will keep their corporate headquarters there and maintain the gardens until they find a buyer for the site. Beyond that, the future of the property remains unclear.
Community leaders expressed concern about the future of the grounds, saying the center could become a further blight on an already troubled community.
“It could be just an abandoned site and go downhill quickly,” said John Hisserich, chairman of the Northeast Community Plan Advisory Council, which is working on revisions to the city’s area’s community plan. “I would love to find a way to make the site a viable, contributing member of the community.”
One potential buyer is the nascent Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, whose board of directors has expressed an interest. But board members would need to raise an estimated $30 million to acquire the land and convert it to a museum.