“The whole country is mad about this,” says Patrick Walsh, director of purchasing at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District.
Lemon Blennd has been a summertime staple in Western PA and beyond since its creation in 1914. The frosty orange-lemon beverage was served in ornate tea houses during Pittsburgh’s Roaring ‘20s. It was for sale at concession stands during Pirates games in the ‘50s. And Turner’s Dairy sold little cardboard cartons of it well into the 21st century.
Until last year, distributors like Penn Mac sold jugs of Lemon Blennd concentrate to nostalgic yinzers coast-to-coast.
But not anymore.
Byrnes & Kiefer, the 120-year-old bakery supply manufacturer who own the recipe, halted production sometime late last year.
They refuse to comment.
Penn Mac, the 120-year-old Italian grocer in the Strip, was one of the last remaining Lemon Blennd distributors. Sales of the product had been steady for the past five years, said Walsh, until it disappeared abruptly.
“Every year, from the beginning of spring to the end of summer, I’d put a stack of it right in the front room,” said Walsh. “I can’t tell you how many people would stop and say, ‘Remember this?’ It was their childhood.”
“A lot of people miss it; we’re all really disappointed.”
This story starts in the group chat.
“Conway,” said the message. “I need you to get to the bottom of this atrocity.”
Then a photo: a typed, handmade sign, taped inside a cooler at Danny’s Pizza & Hoagies in Bethel Park.
Lemon Blennd has been discontinued by its manufacturer Byrnes & Kiefer Company.
Unhappy that they have?
Give them a call at 724-538-5200 and let them know.
There’s a dozen of us in the group chat, all friends from high school. Geoff had been looking for Blennd earlier this summer to make for his kids, and as a base for grown-up cocktails after bedtime – call it the original Yinzerita.
“I bought a giant economy jug of it at Duffy’s [Pop & Beer] years ago and had it in my fridge,” he said. “When I went to find it again, it was gone-zo.”
He had to know – did it really disappear?
I remembered the drink from my own Mon Valley childhood. The drink remained most popular in former mill towns like McKeesport and Homestead, according to a Post-Gazette story from 20 years ago.
Its sweet citrus taste was like a lemon-orange Tang, and I could picture the snow-capped, double-n “Blennd” spelled out on the side of the packaging.
The first person I spoke with was Tom Griffith, founder, along with his brother, of lemonblennd.com – “The World’s #1 Lemon Blennd Site!” – which traces the history of the non carbonated, non caffeinated fruit-flavored beverage.
“I just want to know what they intend to do with it,” said the recently retired newscaster from his New Hampshire home.
Griffith learned that Blennd was discontinued from Walsh at Penn Mac, who had contacted Tom when he was trying to figure out what happened.
He expressed his disappointment in an April 2 blog post: “LEMON BLENND PRODUCTION HALTED !!”
Since then, Griffith says he’s received between 6 to 12 emails a week, from lifelong Lemon Blennd fans looking to know what happened.
Those who contacted him include the proprietor of a family-owned hot dog shop in Southeast Ohio, who said his family has served Lemon Blennd since the shop opened in the ‘50s. The most typical email, he says, is from sons or daughters who send Blennd concentrate to parents who grew up in Pittsburgh and now live afar, looking for a taste of their childhood.
Griffith is the great grandson of Edwin J.W. Keagy – “a prominent pharmacist whose unique beverage caught the imagination of generations of Pittsburghers.”
Keagy invented “Lem-N-Blennd” in 1914 and sold it out of his North Side pharmacy at 2823 Perrysville Ave. in Perry South, and later at his other pharmacies in Wilkinsburg and East Liberty, as well as Atlantic City, NJ and other regional locations.
In 1932, Keagy reached a production and distribution agreement with Reymers & Brothers Candy. It’s been known to many as “Reymers’ Blennd” or “Reymers’ Lemon Blennd” ever since.
H.J. Heinz Company acquired the assets of Reymer & Bros in 1961, including Lemon Blennd. And in 1979, Blennd fell under the ownership of Byrnes & Kiefer, who retain the rights to this day.
(The Reymer Brothers Candy Factory, located at 1425 Forbes Ave. in Uptown, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. The Byrnes & Kiefer Building, 1127 Penn Ave. in the Strip District, was listed in 1985.)
“I was looking for a summer product because people don’t eat as many baked goods in the summer,” said Edward Byrnes in that same 2002 Post-Gazette article, celebrating 100 years of Byrnes & Kiefer.
Alex Hvizdos, one of the owners at Danny’s Hoagies in Bethel, said that when he learned that distribution was halted, “we went into panic mode.”
“There was no notice they were discontinuing,” said Hvizdos. “I went to every Giant Eagle and Shop n’ Save in the area,” trying to buy up as much of the remaining stock as he could to keep their dedicated Lemon Blennd drink machine going as long as possible.
“It pairs so well with what we do,” he said. “It sold better for us than Coke. Our Italian [hoagie] and the Lemon Blennd were synonymous with each other. I grew up on it. Even before I bought the place, when I came here as a kid, you always got the Italian with the Lemon Blennd.”
Hvizdos said he reached out to Byrnes & Kiefer and was told they had no plans to continue it in the future. He said he offered to buy the recipe – “give me a price,” he said he told them – but he never heard back.
For his part, Walsh is certain Lemon Blennd is for sale. He says he spoke to someone at Byrnes & Kiefer directly, but declined to say who. (When pressed, he reminded me who he worked for: “We’re Penn Mac,” he said, matter-of-factly. “People usually answer when we call.”)
Walsh says he was told that the price to make, mix and distribute Lemon Blennd was no longer worth the cost. He believes the owners don’t want to see the beverage go away.
I first reached out to Byrnes & Kiefer for comment in early November, not long after Geoff sounded the alarm in the group chat. I made calls and sent emails, both to their CEO and marketing director.
I never heard back.
In early December, I drove to their offices to see what I could find.
Byrnes & Kiefer headquarters and production facility are situated next to train tracks beyond a single-lane bridge, amid the rolling farmland turned exurban sprawl of Adams and Forward Townships in Butler County.
Black and white photos from their early days in the Strip District and a Lemon Blennd clock adorn the walls of their lobby. There’s a framed proclamation from Pittsburgh City Council on the wall behind the glass window that separates their offices from the waiting area. It was a bit too distant to read, but if one squints, it seems to mark the company’s century in Pittsburgh.
There’s no secretary or receptionist behind the glass. Instead, there’s a phone, where one can dial an extension to reach the person with whom you’d like to contact.
“I’ve been directed by ownership to say we have no comment,” said the marketing director, after a month of silence, when reached by phone from the lobby.
“Isn’t there something you can tell me?”
“It’s discontinued for now,” she said, before reiterating that she was instructed not to comment.
“OK,” I replied. “Discontinued for now; otherwise, no comment.”
“No,” she said. “We have no comment.”
And that was that.
Turner’s Dairy, which previously produced drink cartons of Reymers’ Lemon Blennd, did not respond to several requests for comment.
“My grandfather had the recipe and allegedly gave it to my father,” said Griffith. “He had it and tried to recreate it with little success. The exact recipe itself, as far as I know, has disappeared with the two of them to Lemon Blennd heaven.”
The only ones who have it today are Byrnes & Kiefer. Whether or not it will ever be produced again, remains to be seen.
“If it comes back, I’ll definitely carry it,” says Penn Mac’s Walsh.
He’s likely not the only one.