Reprinted from the New Haven Register
Legend dies: Ken Lassen ran New Haven's Louis’ Lunch - 'Birthplace of the Hamburger' - for 65 years
Published: Sunday, December 26, 2010
By Mark Zaretsky, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN — It’s not like Ken "Popsie" Lassen invented the hamburger or anything.
No, his grandfather did that.
But Lassen, who died Tuesday at age 93, was the heart and soul of Louis' Lunch, the warm, wooden jewel box of a family-run lunch joint that is one of the city’s most iconic and beloved institutions, for generations of New Haveners.
He stood up to City Hall and the forces of urban renewal for a decade, politely but firmly — and won — at a time when the city was being remade in broad swaths and such David-and-Goliath battles almost always went Goliath’s way.
Lassen ultimately got the city, under Mayor Bartholomew Guida, and with the help of future Mayor Frank Logue, to agree in 1975 to move Louis’ — known far and wide as "The Birthplace of the Hamburger" — a couple of blocks from Temple and George streets to Crown Street west of College Street to clear the way for demolition of the old tannery Louis’ was attached to and to make way for Temple Medical Center.
Even more importantly, Lassen — grandson of Louis Lassen himself, who opened Louis' Lunch in 1895 and first put chopped, pressed beef between two slices of bread in 1900 — made generations of Yale students and other new arrivals feel comfortable and at home at Louis', even when they committed the colossal faux pas of asking for ketchup on their burger.
His son, Jeff Lassen, pointed out Saturday as the Lassen family gathered for what unexpectedly became their first Christmas without him, that Ken Lassen was very proud of the fact that he did it all without ever raising his voice to his wife — even though they spent much of their nearly 60 years together working within 4 or 5 feet of each other in the cramped area behind Louis' well-worn, deeply carved wooden counter.
Besides his sons, Ken Lassen is survived by his wife of 59 years, Leona "Lee" Lassen; daughter, Laurel Jonas; and grandson, Cole Kenneth Lassen.
Ken Lassen, who died of kidney failure, "is the one responsible for putting Louis' where it is today and getting it to the level where it is today," Jeff Lassen said at his home in Bethany, flanked by his older brother, Ken Jr.
"Before, we were always New Haven-known and Connecticut-known." But Louis' role in American cultural iconography spread much wider in recent years "and he had a lot to do with that."
Lassen always said his grandfather came up with the hamburger sandwich in 1900 when a man dashed up to his lunchcart and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty made from steak scraps between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way.
Asked how they thought their father might want to be remembered, Ken Lassen Jr., said, "He was just as comfortable talking to the homeless person on the bench as the bank president."
"He treated everybody the same," said Jeff Lassen, "and he loved to talk."
One of the folks Lassen sometimes talked to is Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
"He was a connection to part of an older part of New Haven and also very much part of the current part of New Haven," DeStefano said Saturday. "He kept the business alive when urban renewal almost took it out of business and built a wonderful tradition of connecting people to New Haven in an absolutely unique way.
"It's rare that we see a family businesses like this in this day and age," DeStefano said. "They're hard to sustain over generations. Ken was an original, part of our past and part of what we are today in so many ways. All of us will be able to remember him any time we go for a hamburger at Louis'."
With Ken Lassen, "what you saw was what you got," said Jeff Lassen. "He loved to be there" at Louis'. "That was his baby and his pride and joy. He never took a day off" until he fell and broke his shoulder about five years ago, he said.
In the years since, Lassen, a World War II veteran, occasionally would complain, "'I’m not pulling my weight,'" Jeff said. "I used to remind him that he pulled his weight for 65 years — not only pulled his weight but put it on his shoulders and carried it on his back."
Never was that more evident than in the epic battle to save the restaurant from the wrecking ball — during which New Haven's newspapers ran stories about Louis' that included the word "DOOMED" in the headlines on numerous occasions.
Throughout it all, Lassen — with plenty of help from diners and preservationists — refused to take "no" for an answer and repeatedly urged the city to do the right thing.
When it was all over and the city followed through on its pledge to move Louis' to its current location, Louis’ needed a new east wall to complete the building on the side that used to be attached to the tannery.
Lassen had workmen build the wall out of bricks from the old tannery and dozens of other demolished buildings that once stood in the city — interspersed with bricks and rocks brought back by Louis' aficionados traveling all over the world, including tiny chunks of the Great Wall of China, St. Phillip's Palace in London, a barn in Norway, street paving from Georgia and the homes of Presidents Buchanan and Coolidge.
Eventually, the Lassens actually made a map showing the origin of dozens of stones embedded in the wall. But even before then, Ken Lassen took pleasure in asking a new arrival what their ancestry was — and then pointing out a brick or rock fragment from the place their family hailed from.
Ken Lassen, referring to the move as workers toiled to complete the expanded building a few days before it reopened in late 1975, called it "the biggest challenge I ever had ... how to keep a part of the history of New Haven, and to build new.
"I speak from the heart," he told then-Register reporter Stanley Venoit. "It became an obsession with me. This building and business meant so much to my family and friends.
"When we're through building, the city will have something to be very proud of," Lassen said. "Look over there," he said, pointing to a wall mounted with coachlights from an old professional building demolished to build the Crown Street garage.
"That stone up there came from the area where the Lord fed the multitude fishes and bread," he said. "Without his help, I never would have made all this possible."