LAWSON’S DAIRY STORES. In 1954 there were 25 Lawson Dairy stores with their trademark white milk can against a blue background in the Cleveland area. The stores were replaced by Dairy Mart stores in the 1980s and in 2000, the stores were rebranded Circle-K.
Many thought that the switch to Circle K would be the end of the Lawson’s brand but it proved to be more resilient. In 1975, the Lawson Milk Company partnered with Daiei, a major player in the Japanese supermarket business, to open the first “Lawson” convenience store in Japan. By 2018 there were 11,384 Lawson stores in Japan. For perspective there were approximately 10,000 7-Elevens in the U.S. and Canada combined that year.
In 2022, there were no Lawson’s Dairy stores left in the U.S., but Lawson stores operated in all 47 prefectures of Japan as well as China, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Lawson’s Dairy stores had their beginning in 1939 when James Joseph “J.J.” Lawson (27 Jan 1888-23 Jul 1962) opened a retail counter to sell milk by the gallon and ice cream at his Lawson Milk Company plant on Home Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls.
At the time most milk was home delivered in quart bottles. By putting a wider mouth on the jug and adding a wire handle for easy carrying purposes, Lawson invented a way for the consumer to handle one bottle instead of four for every gallon of milk sold. The savings could be passed on to the consumer who then could get the pure product closer to home. And part of the savings could be passed on to the dairy farmer.
Lawson and his wife, Mary M. Stewart, from whom Lawson Dairy stores “Mary Lawson candies” take their name, attained international fame for their adoption of the “large economy size” principle to the milk products they sold through their stores.
Lawson was born one of nine children in Stokes, North Carolina. He sold his first dairy at a profit just before the 1929 stock market crash. A condition of the sale required that he remain out of the milk dairy field until 1934. On the expiration date he re-entered the dairy industry and started a trend that changed the way milk was sold across the country and around the world.
The road to success wasn’t easy. Government regulations regarding the sale of milk, blue laws which prohibited stores from operating on Sunday, and the traditional method of delivering milk door to door, made for a difficult fight. Traditional dairies accused the chain of artificially lowering prices. Activists hurled stink bombs into Lawson’s stores and dynamited a truck.
In a 1941 profile in the Akron Beacon Journal, Keyes Beech wrote, “While others cited reasons why the price should be upped, Lawson casually hinted that the price should be reduced. Such popular perversity on Lawson’s part has tickled the public fancy. It has given him the appearance of a public benefactor, a lone independent bucking the milk trust.”
By 1939, Lawson had ten stores. By 1943, the number had grown to twenty. By the 1950s there were over 700 Lawson’s stores throughout the Midwest.
In 1959, Lawson sold the Lawson brand and his retail stores to Consolidated Food Corp. to devote his efforts to full time philanthropy mostly helping fund religious causes across the world. On 22 July 1962, Lawson was killed in a tragic head-on collision with a truck, leaving behind his wife, two grown children, two brothers, a sister, and six grandchildren.
In 1985, Consolidated Food Corps (then known as the Sara Lee Corp.) sold the Lawson’s stores to Dairy Mart, a smaller chain of convenience stores located in Enfield, CT. Dairy Mary moved its headquarters to Cuyahoga Falls and operated the chain under the Dairy Mart name for the next 17 years.
In 2002, a Canadian-based convenience store company, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. bought the assets and the Dairy Mart stores were converted to the company’s Circle K brand. Due to demand from consumers, Lawson’s Chip Dip and other popular Lawson products continued to be sold under the Lawson’s Dairy name.
Lawson’s Dairy Timeline
|1939||James “J.J.” Lawson begins selling milk in gallon-size glass jugs from a retail store at his dairy, the Lawson Milk Company in Cuyahoga Falls. The jug would become his store’s icon, and milk sold in gallons is Lawson’s claim to fame.|
|1958||Lawson sold his stores in Consolidated Foods for $10 million.|
|1962||J.J. Lawson dies June 23 from injuries suffered in a head-on car crash on Graham Road near his home in Stow. He was 74.|
|1960-1984||Consolidated Foods continues to operate Lawson’s in Ohio and several other states, and the chain grows to more than 700 stores. Lawson’s brands of Big-O orange juice, eggnog, ice cream and chip dip become popular, entrenched local brands.|
|1975||Consolidated signs an agreement with Daiei Inc., one of Japan’s largest grocery chains, to operate Lawson’s stores there. The first Lawson’s opens in Japan in April 1975.|
|1979||Lawson Japan Inc. becomes the official company name, as it becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Daiei. Stores there operate under the name Lawson and Lawson Station.|
|1984||Consolidated sells its 700-plus U.S. stores to Dairy Mart, a Connecticut company. Dairy Mart moves its corporate headquarters to Hudson. Dairy Mart acquires the Lawson’s store brands, including Big-O orange juice and Lawson’s Original Chip Dip.|
|1996||Lawson Japan opens first store in China (in 2022 there were 363).|
|2001||Mitsubishi Corp. becomes the main shareholder in the Japanese Lawson stores.|
|2002||Dairy Mart files for bankruptcy. A Canadian company, Alimentation Couche-Tard, acquires the Dairy Mart stores and renames them Circle K. All Lawson brands are phased out except the chip dip, which continues to be made by Dairymens Dairy in Cleveland, and still is sold at Circle K.|
|May 2011||Lawson Inc. opens 10,000th store in Japan.|
|July 2011||Lawson Inc. opens first store in Indonesia.|
|July 2012||Lawson USA Hawaii Inc. opens two Lawson stores in Honolulu, with plans for 20 to 30 more Hawaiian stores within the next three years.|