The iconic Lexington Candy Shop, a luncheonette at the heart of New York’s Upper East Side, is turning 90 this year and life couldn’t be sweeter. Owner operated for three generations, the sustained success of this restaurant is remarkable in an industry continuously seeking to reinvent itself.
So how does a restaurant, especially a traditional lunch counter, stay in business this long? According to John Philis, the third-generation owner, it started with his grandfather’s commitment to giving people what they want: authenticity, quality food, and friendly service. There is also a little magic to go along with John’s practicality, which can also help other restaurateurs on the road to success.
Identity and quality matters
Not much has changed since 1925 when Lexington Candy Shop’s doors opened, and this is one of their secrets to success. These days, there are few places where you can sit at the lunch counter and have a soda jerk customize your Coca-Cola by mixing your preferred ratio of carbonation and syrup. It’s an experience that simply cannot be recreated today.
The menu hasn’t changed much over the years either. The lemonade is still fresh squeezed and the milkshakes are made with a Hamilton mixer that has been in service well over 70 years. Lexington Candy Shop remains timeless because they never abandoned what works for them to chase a passing trend. The decision to stay true to their identity has created a nostalgia that resonates with everyone from hipsters to the older generations who practically raised their children there.
Lexington Candy Shop has used some of the same vendors for decades, which provides a quality and consistency that customers have come to expect. The bread used throughout the menu for over 25 years is from nearby Orwasher’s Bakery. Every cup of coffee served here since the 1930s has been from Vassilaros & Sons, another local purveyor in business for almost 100 years.
LCS also uses real malt powder, which is practically unheard of today, along with Bassetts Ice Cream (in business since 1861) to create a one-of-a-kind milkshake. Every ingredient at this restaurant, from the butter and cheese to the meat, is all thoughtfully selected. This has given Lexington Candy Shop their culinary notoriety and even as some of the ingredients become harder to get, LCS refuses to abandon what makes them truly unique.
Connecting with customers is key
Part of what has made Lexington Candy Shop such a revered locale is that it is owner operated. Chances are Philis or his partner Robert Karcher will be behind the counter with a smile, serving up some of the famed sandwiches and shakes. There is no disconnect between the customers and management. This has allowed Philis, Karcher, and team to be at the forefront of understanding what their diners want and giving it to them immediately.
The dedication to connecting with customers extends into the modern age as LCS has embraced social media and its potential. Customers are bringing tablets and laptops to read the news instead of newspapers. Social media has also given LCS the ability to appeal to the younger generation as well as tourists just passing through. “You have to respect the fact that people are going on their phones to find places to eat,” said Philis.
Another element in Lexington Candy Shop’s ability to connect with customers also comes from the restaurant’s roots, which spread deep throughout the community. This corner spot has served as the meeting place for families and friends for generations. It is not uncommon for someone in the neighborhood to leave keys or packages in the hands of the staff here.
Parents have asked Lexington Candy Shop to hire their kids as a first job to teach the foundation of quality and customer service. It’s also not uncommon to find culinary students from the local high school serving up some of the LCS specialties. One of these students who spent summers working at Lexington Candy Shop later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and opened his own restaurant in New Orleans.
The magic of authenticity
Lexington Candy Shop has created a small town feel in a really big city. There is a trust and connection to the community that happens only when you are authentic and truly engaged with customers. At some restaurants you can’t stop in and expect to chat about what’s happening in the neighborhood, but you can here. There is no pretention, only good food served by honest people who have devoted their lives to the Lexington Candy Shop experience. A lifetime of memories has been made here and it all started in 1925 with one man on a mission to serve his community.
It is hard to adequately describe what Lexington Candy Shop has meant to New Yorkers over the years. It’s a love story still being written every time a diner grabs a seat at the counter and orders a malted milk shake, or slides into a booth and orders a sandwich. If there’s anything we can learn from Lexington Candy Shop, though, it’s that simplicity, authenticity, and quality is what makes their business better.
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