Magazine / People

Thinking Inside the Box

Chef Bryan Ehrenholm has more than 750 lunch boxes on display in his restaurant, the Lunch Pail. Photo courtesy of Bryan Ehrenholm

What do Life Savers candy, Barbie dolls and the TV show “Knight Rider” have in common? They’re just a few of the themes depicted in Bryan Ehrenholm’s extensive collection of vintage lunch boxes.

When he’s not running his successful catering business or working in his restaurant, the Lunch Pail, Ehrenholm (BSBA hospitality management and tourism ’93) is busy scouring Internet auction sites on a quest to find unique lunch boxes for his collection.

The hobby started when the chef/owner opened his breakfast and lunch café in Modesto, Calif., eight years ago. He chose the nostalgic name as a marketing tactic to persuade busy passersby to stop in for a quick bite.

“We decided to put a few lunch pails on the walls — and that few has turned into over 750,” says Ehrenholm, who also owns a bakery and has taken 13 “Best in America” prizes at the annual Great American Pie Festival in Orlando, Fla.

Ehrenholm’s collection includes lunch pails from the 1800s through the early 1980s.

His interest in lunch pails was fed by their history and place in American pop culture. Ehrenholm says having a new lunch pail every year was a big thing for children in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

“Your mom would say, ‘You don’t need a new one, your old one is fine,’” he says. “Well, you didn’t dare show up the next year with the same lunch pail you carried last year. So you found a way to dent it in, smash it or break the handles so you had to get a new one.”

Ehrenholm aspires to find lunch boxes nobody else has. The “holy grails of lunch pails,” he calls them. He’s especially proud of his recent acquisition — the official red lunch pail Beaver Cleaver carried on the show “Leave it to Beaver.”

Find the recipe to Bryan Ehrenholm’s award-winning ‘Engagement Ring’ pie here

He found this treasure on a television prop company’s eBay auction site. It didn’t show up in the 40–50 pages of lunch boxes for auction, so other collectors missed it. He snagged the collectible for $96 when it should have gone for upward of $500.

Ehrenholm says some “holy grails,” such as “Star Trek” pails, can sell for $12,000.

The hobbyist displays his prize possessions on large shelves spanning the walls of his 5,000-square-foot restaurant. He has 150 in the queue for when he finds more space.

Ehrenholm’s next project is to build a display for the hundreds of Thermoses that accompany the lunch pails — perhaps above the restaurant’s self-serve beverage area.

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