Ken “Popsie” Lassen did not invent the hamburger, but he did help keep New Haven family businesses alive.
Lassen, who died Dec. 21 of kidney failure at age 93, was not only the third generation owner of Louis’ Lunch — the New Haven restaurant recognized worldwide as the birthplace of the modern-day hamburger — but was also known as an ardent advocate for small businesses in the Elm City.
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“Thanks to [Ken], Louis’ became a symbol for how a strong family business can thrive in the face of urban renewal,” said Jeff Lassen, Ken’s son. “His victory [against the city], with the support of others, was also a victory for a lot of other people in the community.””
In the 1970s, he was an outspoken critic of then Mayor Bartholomew Guida’s urban redevelopment programs that tried to clear space in New Haven, often resulting in the demolition of family businesses around town.
The city wanted to clear the former Louis’ Lunch building, a New Haven tradition since 1895, at the corner of George and Temple streets to make way for the construction of Temple Medical Center. But Lassen, who engaged in a decade-long community campaign against the city, wanted to find a spot where he could both afford to rebuild and keep his customers. He repeatedly petitioned the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, a federal funded organization supported by the Community Development Act.
On Feb. 3, 1975, the News reported on Lassen’s concerns about the future of the restaurant.
“I mean you’ve got something here that you don’t have anywhere else in America, something really unique, really distinctive,” he said at the time. “And they’re going to destroy it for a 32-story parking garage. Now is that progress?”
Lassen’s efforts ultimately paid off. Louis’ Lunch was rebuilt at its present Crown St. site, with bricks taken not only from other demolished New Haven buildings but also structures around the world including the Great Wall of China.
Speaking to the New Haven Register after the opening of the new building in late 1975, he said the move was a “big challenge…to keep a part of the history of New Haven,.”
Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, a customer at Louis’ Lunch since his undergraduate years in the 1950s, said Lassen was a prominent New Haven figure who kept the restuarant alive when big corporations were dominating the business scene. Even now, the small individual proprietor has almost completely disappeared in cities, Smith said.
Lassen was effective in promoting his own small business as well. Although Lassen’s grandfather, Louis Lassen, is credited by the Library of Congress to have served the first American hamburger, it was Lassen who put Louis’ Lunch on the map.
Jeff Lassen said Ken was the reason Louis’ Lunch was known well beyond the boundaries of Connecticut, and even America. Patrons from all over the world go to the lunch joint, and on Tuesday, it was no different.
Jared Bradley, 49, a resident of Long Beach, CA who was in New Haven to visit his sister, said he often dropped by Louis’ when he was in town, having first tasted its distinctive hamburgers while growing up in Hartford, CT.
“It is such a tradition, the place, and believe me, people all over have heard of it,” he said. “Back when Louis’ was the absolute place to go on Crown [St.], it really was something,” he said.
Even someone from as far away as William Chan, a Hong Kong resident, was seen ordering Louis’ original hamburger and potato salad. He decided to visit after seeing the Lonely Planet’s recommendation for Louis’ old-fashioned burgers.
Louis’ Lunch has even appeared on the big screen.
George Motz, a hamburger expert who has written several books and directed the 2005 television documentary, “Hamburger America,” in which Lassen was interviewed as one of the featured hamburger makers, called Louis’ “one of the most historically significant restaurants in America” in a statement on his website.
“[Lassen] perpetuated the hamburger dream that his grandfather started over 110 years ago,” Motz wrote.
The national hamburger landmark almost played host to a president, according to an article in the News on Apr. 16, 1975. The Committee to Save Louis’ Lunch, a community action group led by James Slaff ’75, invited then President Gerald Ford to eat in the lunch room. But his Deputy Director of Scheduling, William Nicholson, decided that the president was too busy to attend.
At least one president is no stranger to the New Haven establishment. University President Richard Levin said he frequented Louis’ Lunch as a graduate student in the 1970s.
“As I got a little older and got more conscious of my cholestrol, I haven’t been back in a long time — at least 20 years,” he said.
While burgers drew customers to the restaurant, so did Lassen’s warm personality.
“No matter who you were, he [Ken] would talk with you and make you feel like you knew him,” Jeff said.
Ken Lassen is survived by his wife of 59 years, Leona “Lee” Lassen; his two sons, Jeff and Ken Jr.; daughter, Laurel Jonas; and grandson, Cole Kenneth Lassen.