Out to lunch
Nothing lasts forever, except perhaps Leo May’s lunch pails.
Built to withstand the harsh underground environment of Sudbury’s hard-rock mines, the product practically sold itself the day miner and inventor Leo May brought it to work.
It all began one day in 1956 when May attempted to use his black tin lunch pail as a make-shift seat while he ate his lunch. The pail collapsed, prompting May to create a stronger, more reliable product.
“In those days, they didn’t have lunchrooms or benches,” said Catherine Langin, May’s daughter and current owner of L. May Metal Fabricators Ltd. “They just ate where they worked.”
Once May brought his new, riveted aluminum lunch pail to work, about 40 fellow workers immediately wanted one, marking the beginning of a business that has become internationally recognized and is now a part of Sudbury’s history. It was even regarded as a good-luck charm, returning the miners safely to surface.
Born and raised in Alberta, May came to Ontario’s lumber camps as a teenager looking for work. In 1948, the 20-year-old ended up in Sudbury and was hired on at the International Nickel Company (Inco). After working at the smelter, he transferred to an underground job at the Frood-Stobie complex, where he remained until his retirement in 1982. He carried on the business with his daughter and son-in-law’s help until he passed away in 2004.
Besides being an inventor who enjoyed tinkering, May was an avid angler and hunter – so much so that he trapped and sold minnows for several years alongside his lunch pail fabrication business.
“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t take on,” Langin reminisced. “If he needed something, he learned how to build it. He taught himself welding, fabricating … he was very self-sufficient.”
The lunch box, initially built by hand, features stainless-steel hardware. May originally sold it for $2.50 at a time when miners earned $1.25 per hour. The original design was 10-inches wide, and four-and-a-half inches deep, constructed to fit around a sandwich and accommodate a vacuum bottle.
As more requests filtered in, May experimented with different sizes. Eventually, four sizes were sold in two-inch increments from eight-inches wide for school children up to the jumbo 14-inch wide size. May had said it was for people who liked their rhubarb pie or their rhubarb whole. As miners’ shifts extended to 12 hours, the boxes increased in size in order to hold more food. Langin said many people used them as brief cases and lunch boxes. May also built other aluminum products, because a “box was a box was a box.”
The hip-roofed design has a distinguishing guise trademark in Canada. Presently, Langin is awaiting notification of a U.S. trademark equivalent. Another distinguishing feature of the box is the stamp in the upper right-hand corner of the box: L. May MFG. Sudbury, Ont. It is like a return address, although Langin said she has received only good-news testimonials, reflecting the quality and longevity of the product.
“A lot of people have a connection because they either knew my dad or they have a story (about the lunch pail) and a smile on their face when they tell it,” said Langin.
Over the years, the lunch pails sold internationally via mail- or phone-call orders. Even Martha Stewart placed an order for 500 boxes. Retailers like Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Woolworths, K-Mart and mom and pop-type businesses also distributed the product. At its height, May employed approximately 10 part-time employees, producing approximately 50,000 units annually. International requests increased with the advent of the Internet. The boxes now retail for between $30 and $80, depending on the size.
“It grew exponentially without him pursuing it,” Langin said. “He didn’t advertise because the product advertised itself.”
As requests increased, modifications were made to automate the business. Now, all the equipment has been upgraded and Langin, who has run the business for a number of years, is looking for a prospective buyer.
“I’ve always known this was a multimillion-dollar idea,” Langin said. “My dad kept it to his comfort level, but once he passed away, I literally walked in his shoes.”
After working for her father since childhood, she is ready to retire and let someone else grow the business, so she can spend time with her grandchildren.
Tagged Canada, Canadian Tire, Catherine Langin, Frood-Stobie Complex, Greater Sudbury, hard-rock mines, Home Hardware, L. May Metal Fabricators Ltd., L. May MFG, Leo May, lunch, Lunch pail, Northern Ontario, Northern Ontario Business, Ontario, prospective buyer, Sudbury