Is the L.A. Hamburger Stand Cooked?

Times Staff Writer

They’re taking a stand for Los Angeles’ disappearing hamburger stand.

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 coffee outlet.

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 for Wednesday.


“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.

If 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 homemade chili.

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 family.

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 preferences.

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 Northridge.

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 basis.

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 since 1950.

“The Hongs are an extended family to so many of us.”