Lehmann leads family business into second 100 yearsPublished 12:05am Sunday, December 22, 2013
NATCHEZ — Jay Lehmann was 5 years old when he started working in the family business.
“When my father added wholesale groceries to our business, he carried seed potatoes and sardines,” Lehmann said. “It was my job to reach down into the sack of potatoes and pull out the spoiled ones, and if one of the cans of sardines exploded, I was the one who had to clean it up. It was the worst job I had in my life, but I made 25 cents an hour so I was in hog heaven at 5 years old.”
Sixty-six years after starting out with the rotten potatoes and flung fish juice, Lehmann has long since moved up from mess cleaner to owner, and in January he will usher the family enterprise into its 100th year of business.
Founded in 1914 by Jonas Lehmann Sr. — Jay’s grandfather — as Lehmann Brokerage, the business was originally a one-man operation in an office above the Dixon’s building at the corner of Main Street and Locust Alley.
The business didn’t deal in package goods at the time — very few businesses did — but instead acted as the acquisition agency for wholesale groceries, making bulk orders for things like sugar.
“In that period of time, the people my grandfather sold to were wholesale grocers who were located within a 50-mile radius of Natchez,” Lehmann said. “He also sold sugar to bottlers — he sold to Coca-Cola — and coffee to roasters.”
The business made its first transition into something new in the mid 1930s, when Lehmann’s father — Jonas Lehmann Jr. — took over the company.
While Jonas Jr. maintained the brokerage, he expanded into wholesale grocery. That’s where Jay got his young start with the potatoes.
“A broker never warehouses the goods,” Lehmann said. “He takes the order from the store and sends it to the manufacturer.”
With the expansion into wholesale grocery, the business started offering imported steel items such as nails and barbwire fencing, as well as package goods like canned peaches and corn. Eventually the business was moved to Canal Street.
“Now, if you want nails, you go to a hardware store, but at that time all the wholesale grocers were selling nails, barbwire and steel fencing,” Lehmann said.
The third generation of Lehmann ownership — Jay — took over in 1968. The business morphed again, with the expansion into the food service industry, selling No. 10 cans of food to different producers. The business expanded from a 50-mile radius to 200 miles around Natchez.
Ten years after taking the helm, Lehmann purchased the Natchez branch of the Jackson-based wholesale grocer, Russell Company, and took over its location on Canal Street at Franklin Street in what is now the Callon Building.
The same year, he started Lehmann Cash and Carry, which moved to 481 John R. Junkin Drive in 2001 and specializes in large-size retail grocery items. The brokerage business, though smaller, continues from the office there.
The most popular item the cash and carry side of the business sells are, by far, the foam hinged-lid dinner plates, Lehmann said, but anything he places on the shelves will move.
“A lot of times I have cooks come in who are looking to buy things like soup bases, but I could order the oddest things and people would buy them,” he said.
“I could order canned cumquats, and I guarantee you within six months they would be sold.”
Through the years, the number of employees grew from the single broker in Jonas Lehmann Sr. to eight during the height of the wholesale grocery business down to two, Jay Lehmann and a driver.
But as the man who runs one of the few century-old businesses in town that is still family owned, Lehmann said he is holding tight to the reins.
“It is what I have done all my life, and I don’t want to change,” he said.