the L.A. Hamburger Stand Cooked?
Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
taking a stand for Los Angeles' disappearing hamburger
Customers of Irv's Burgers shoved aside their cheeseburger
combos, signed petitions and wrote protest letters when
they learned a month ago that their West Hollywood burger
joint was about to be torn down to make way for a chain
Calling themselves the "Burger Brigade," they
showered Emeryville-based Peet's Coffee & Tea Inc.
with so many protests that the company's corporate lawyer
was dispatched to meet with them last week at the home
of an Irv's Burgers fan. Another meeting is scheduled
"The place has such a history. Jim Morrison of
the Doors and Janis Joplin loved the place," said
Irv's Burger customer John Tripp, an event promoter
who has eaten there for more than 20 years, adding that
artwork for a Linda Ronstadt album was shot at Irv's.
the 54-year-old stand survives, it would be a rare victory
for burger buffs who have gone from heartburn to heartache
watching hundreds of independent walk-up eateries gobbled
up. Disappearing with the shacks are the colorful short-order
proprietors, each with his own take on the perfect burger,
whether it's topped with a fried egg or smothered in
Rising real estate values and changing tastes are largely
to blame for the demise. Some stands evolved into taco
shops or outlets for Asian food. But most were simply
torn down to make way for new projects.
The boom in gourmet coffee houses has taken a particular
toll in recent years.
The hamburger stand was born in Los Angeles as an outgrowth
of World War II. Returning GIs discovered that they
could easily and cheaply go into business
for themselves by selling burgers.
Very little space was required. Owners of tiny, odd-shaped
parcels too small for a retail shop were more than happy
to unload their orphan slivers of land.
Enterprising veterans used surplus aluminum and steel
from local aircraft and defense plants to build their
40-foot-square shacks. Often, prefabricated cubicles
were trucked in and placed on pre-poured concrete pads.
Mild Los Angeles winters meant that the open-air businesses
could operate year-round. Because walk-up stands served
primarily patrons from nearby offices, shops or industrial
plants, there was no need for customer parking lots
like those required for another popular business that
was emerging: the drive-in restaurant.
"You throw it together, hook up the gas and water
and you're in business. Eventually, the little stands
would expand. The owner would extend the roof and add
a table or two and chairs," said Gerald Panter.
"Then they'd extend the stand a little more to
give themselves storage room." Panter is an expert
on Los Angeles hamburger stands. In just the last four
years he has cataloged more than 200 of the postwar
eateries for a planned book on fast-food stands called
"Eating on the Run."
He estimates that about 35% of those he has photographed
have disappeared. The famed Kosher Burrito on downtown's
1st Street was bulldozed in 2002 to make way for a new
Caltrans building. Frank's on Beverly Boulevard near
La Brea Avenue was recently converted into a Coffee
Bean & Tea Leaf shop.
That's a far cry from the hamburger stand's heyday,
when hundreds dotted street corners, edges of parking
lots and the fringes of industrial zones. It's impossible
to know exactly how many were around because most stands
were built on the fly, sometimes starting as portable
stands that evolved into free-standing businesses.
A few walk-up places survive: The Original Tommy's on
Beverly Boulevard, and the landmark Pink's hot dogs
on La Brea Avenue and Tail of the Pup on San Vicente
Boulevard have loyal followings. A public outcry saved
the 48-year-old Jay's Jayburgers stand at Santa Monica
Boulevard and Virgil Avenue famous for its old-school
founder Lionel "Jay" Coffin and his secret
chili recipe from demolition in 2000.
But competition from sit-down fast-food restaurants
run by the likes of McDonald's, Carl's Jr. and Burger
King crushed most independent hamburger stands. Stricter
zoning regulations that mandate on-site parking mean
that construction of new walk-up stands is unlikely,
according to Panter, an attorney who lives in Hollywood.
As the open-air stands have faded away, so have their
gregarious short-order-grill owners.
Panter said the old-style hamburger joints were inevitably
run by feisty characters who treated customers like
That's certainly the case at Irv's Burgers, where teriyaki
bowls, burritos and breakfast specials are cooked up
along with $5.08 hamburger combos by a proprietor who
has memorized hundreds of customers' names and food
Sonia Hong, who with brother Sean Hong and mother "Mamma
Soon" as she's known to regulars
greets customers by singing personalized songs to them.
Food is served on paper plates, which Hong decorates
with patrons' names and customized felt-pen sketches.
A framed "certificate of commendation" from
West Hollywood is placed on the counter next to the
order window. City Hall is across the street, and municipal
officials are among the regulars.
The Hongs acquired the business near the northeast corner
of Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue in 2000
for about $100,000. They rent the site for $2,000 a
month under a five-year lease that expired in June.
Landowner Irv Gendis has owned the burger stand site
and an adjacent parcel that once housed an automotive
repair shop since 1970.
Locals say the hamburger stand was known as Queenies'
Burgers and then Joe's Burgers before Gendis purchased
it and named it after himself.
"Everything's fresh; nothing is frozen. We sell
hamburgers 12 hours a day," said Sonia Hong, of
Hong said she and her family were initially told that
a long-term lease would be available. But 18 months
ago, Gendis leased the burger stand site and the adjoining
land to investor and property manager Gregg Seltzer
in a 30-year deal.
Seltzer, of Santa Monica, is paying Gendis $5,000 a
month for both pieces of land. He continues to rent
the stand to the Hongs for $2,000 on a month-by-month
Seltzer said he has eaten at Irv's Burgers since the
1970s and is a fan of the Hongs. But economics are forcing
the redevelopment of the combined parcels.
He dropped the idea of retaining the hamburger stand
and restoring a small business, such as an automotive
repair shop, to the vacant lot after calculating that
he would have to almost double Hong's rent.
The planned Peet's Coffee & Tea would consist of
a small retail store with a patio for coffee sipping
in the front and a parking lot in the back.
"If there was a way to put Peet's on there and
keep Irv's, I'd be first in line," Seltzer said.
Seltzer attended last Thursday night's meeting along
with Peter Mehrberg, Peet's lawyer. It was held at the
home of Tripp, one of the main organizers of the Burger
Brigade, who lives a block from the stand.
Tripp said he and others are hopeful that a compromise
can be reached to keep the burger stand where it's been
"The Hongs are an extended family to so many of