Al Lapin Jr., entrepreneur and restaurateur who, along with younger brother Jerry, founded the International House of Pancakes in 1958 with a single eatery in Toluca Lake, has died. He was 76.
Lapin died Wednesday at USC/Norris Cancer Center in Los Angeles of cancer, said his son Randy.
The businessman’s roller coaster ride through restaurant chains began with a series of coffee carts called Coffee Time; peaked with IHOP, which acquired Orange Julius, Love’s Barbecue and Copper Penny among others; careened through Uncle John’s Family Restaurants; and came to earth with Pizza Playhouse, which delivered videos with the pepperoni.
Lapin made and lost fortunes, built and lost businesses. In 1989, he declared bankruptcy.
But years after he left IHOP in 1973, he still got a kick out of seeing one of the pancake houses he established, with its signature blue roof, as he traveled the country.
“It’s kind of like seeing your child growing up,” he told The Times in 1988. “From time to time, I get irritated because the grass isn’t cut right or the paint isn’t right. But like any other parent watching a child grow, I know that the child will do whatever it wants to do.”
The son of a professional drummer, Lapin was born in New York but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was a teenager. After serving in the Army, he went through film school at USC and worked in television production. He also worked for the Federal Civil Defense Administration, producing films on surviving atomic attacks.
Learning about mass delivery of sustenance in emergencies during his work with the government, Lapin decided he could make money serving the vital substance of coffee to the working world. He set up Coffee Time, catering to Los Angeles businesses.
As he watched fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell, take off in Southern California, Lapin longed for his own restaurant. Researching foods he might market to the masses, he settled on pancakes and waffles.
The blue roof he chose, echoing the orange roofs of Howard Johnson’s flourishing restaurant chain, have remained an IHOP icon.
For the original Toluca Lake restaurant that Lapin started in 1958 with $25,000, he hired a Cordon Bleu chef to create unusual pancakes, such as Tahitian Orange Pineapple and Kauai Coconut. The tables boasted pitchers of syrup not likely to be found in the family pantry -- boysenberry, blueberry, strawberry -- and a “never empty” pot of coffee.
Asked to name his own favorite pancake, his son said, Lapin would deadpan, “the ones that sell.”
Lapin added the A-frame roof to his chalet theme in 1960 when he built the Woodland Hills IHOP on Ventura Boulevard. He thought the architectural style was homey -- an important element for the man who found his greatest success in family restaurants.
After building three successful pancake houses, Lapin, president and chairman, and his brother, Jerry, executive vice president, decided the best way to expand quickly and truly become “international” was to franchise.
“Franchising is the most important thing we’ve learned, and it can be applied to any business,” Lapin said in a 1962 speech to the Los Angeles Society of Financial Analysts.
Through the 1960s, Lapin rapidly built on that thought to expand IHOP, not only in restaurants but also in subsidiaries. He developed a conglomerate that included not only Orange Julius, Will Wrights Ice Cream Parlors and other food chains, but also such diverse retailers as Michael’s Artist & Engineering Supplies, House of Nine and Shirt Gallery as well as secretarial schools and a security company.
International Industries Inc., the parent company he created and took public, oversaw more than 1,100 outlets. Colleagues said he even considered buying the American Broadcasting Co. By 1970, Lapin’s holdings were valued at more than $40 million.
But although the pancake restaurants remained profitable, some of the other acquired subsidiaries siphoned off those profits. European lenders called in loans of $5 million, and franchisees won a lawsuit, claiming they had been forced to pay inflated prices for supplies and equipment. Lapin’s quick and massive expansion, coupled with tightened credit and a cooling of franchise fervor, almost imploded the business.
In 1973, Lapin told shareholders at the annual meeting: “After eight years of impressive growth and earnings, we were clobbered by the recession of 1970 and 1971 and some of our own errors.” By year-end, he had sold his interest for $50,000.
Only in his mid-40s, Lapin reflected on life for a while, and then jumped into other operations. “I am just not the kind of guy who could lie on the beach forever,” he told Forbes magazine in 1982.
In 1974, he bought Uncle John’s Family Restaurant in Santa Monica, a breakfast place he had admired. In 1981, he bought Toledo-based Quickprint Inc., a franchiser of instant printing centers, out of bankruptcy.
He tried the pizza and video delivery operation and a video production company that showcased rock stars teaching children how to play musical instruments.
“It’s the basic entrepreneurial quest,” he told The Times in 1988. “Find a need and fill it.”
Yet, despite the ups and downs that took him from multimillionaire to bankruptcy, Lapin never lost his optimism or his devotion to family, his son said.
Over the years, Lapin served as president of the International Franchise Assn., the Southern California Restaurant Assn., the Young President’s Assn. and the United Liver Assn. He received an ambassador award from the City of Hope Cancer Center and supported job skills teaching programs for minority youth.
In addition to his brother and son, Lapin is survived by his second wife, Yona; another son, Jeffrey; and three grandchildren.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte or the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital in Los Angeles.