Beef Closes Old Burger Joint
It’s enough to give you a Jayburger heartburn, what with two families feuding over greasy beef patties smothered by even greasier fried eggs.
Customers of Jay’s, the popular east Hollywood burger stand, saved it from destruction five years ago and are now watching in dismay as it is again threatened with demolition.
A rent increase in 2000 prompted burger maker Lionel “Jay” Coffin to close and begin dismantling the steel-sided stand until fans of the egg-topped Jayburger stepped in and bought the business in an effort to preserve their beloved sandwich.
Many double-burgers and one lawsuit later, the 58-year-old sandwich counter at Santa Monica Boulevard and Virgil Avenue has been shut down once more and seems on the verge of being swallowed up by a mini-mall development.
Fans lament that this is an inglorious end to a colorful stand that has been featured in movies, TV shows and magazines and has served generations of equally colorful Hollywood characters and after-hours clubbers.
“This place has been here since my dad was a little boy,” said Alex Garcia, 12, who stopped at the stand to read the sign announcing its closure. It was below another sign that still listed Jayburgers at $2.80 for a single, $3.75 for a double and $4.70 for a triple. A double burger topped with fried eggs and bacon was listed for $5.09.
“That’s my favorite,” Alex said of the fried egg-double burger. “It’s heaven.”
The current fight is over storage space that Coffin’s daughter JayAnn Rodgers Rojas says she needs in order to operate the 300-square-foot walk-up eatery.
Coffin bought the burger stand in 1968 after operating a similar sandwich shop for a dozen years near Los Angeles City College. With its fried egg-and-burger special, the funky red outdoor eatery quickly became a local favorite for Hollywood, Los Feliz and Silver Lake residents.
But Coffin’s rent was bumped from $2,000 a month to $5,000 in 2000 when a couple purchased the corner lot surrounding the stand. Angry, the then-82-year-old Coffin unplugged his griddle and began removing the stand.
Customers began a petition campaign to save it. Two of them, Michael Leko and Dana Hollister, decided to buy the stand for $50,000, pay the higher rent and continue operating it as Jay’s Jayburgers.
Leko was soon running the stand, using Coffin’s old chili and Jayburger patty-and-fried egg recipes.
“I gave him $10,000 and put close to $60,000 in it in floor drains and upgrades. After a year, Jay took ill and his family sued me to get the stand back,” said Leko, who now runs the Eat Well coffee shop in Silver Lake.
“I probably could have won. I let it go. I didn’t want to hurt the family,” Leko said.
Rojas reassumed ownership of the burger stand structure and resumed renting the street-corner site from landowners Mary and Paul Lee. Rojas said she was forced to close it Feb. 1, when the Lees ordered the stand’s storage container removed.
But the Lees contend that they own the burger stand because it is permanently bolted to a concrete foundation. And they assert they’ve gone to great lengths to preserve Rojas’ burger business and to allow for storage space while upgrading the property around it.
Last month the Lees began developing a mini-mall behind the burger stand. To make room for construction, the stand’s customer parking area was eliminated and a storage area used for Jay’s Jayburger supplies was demolished.
Rojas said that after the Lees ordered her to remove the stand’s temporary storage bin she was forced to lay off her six employees and close the business. A short time later, a fence went up around the construction site, sealing off the burger joint.
“I’ve been forced out. They’re holding my building hostage. It’s insane,” Rojas said.
“At the very least I wanted to get my belongings out. I still have perishable product in there that vendors were willing to buy back from me. I can’t even shut off the electricity because I don’t want food to rot in the refrigerators.”
Rojas said her intention is to sell the stand’s equipment and remove the structure. “My dad said if they give you trouble, get the stand out of there,” she said.
The Lees say they did not force the closure of Jay’s Jayburgers.
“We’re not holding anything hostage,” said their daughter, Cindy Lee Whitmore. “The things inside that are not fixtures I told her she can have.”
But the burger stand itself is her family’s property, said Whitmore, an attorney who lives in La Canada Flintridge.
“I’ve told her in no uncertain terms that the burger stand is a fixture to the land. We’re of the understanding we own it. In terms of demolition, I told her as owners we’d consider it trespassing.”
Whitmore said Rojas was asked to rent a smaller storage container because the large one she was using got in the way of construction workers.
“The storage thing she had was bigger than the burger stand. I said, ‘Can you get something a quarter the size?’ She said no.
“Our intention is to keep a burger stand there, whether it’s a Jayburger or some other. It’s not going to be destroyed.”
Rojas said demolition is a touchy issue because if the burger stand is torn down the Lees could be required to dedicate part of the land it sits on as well as adjacent mini-mall property for widening of the busy intersection.
Also, she said, it is unlikely Los Angeles city officials would allow construction of a replacement burger stand similar to the existing one.
Looser health and zoning laws were in effect in 1947 when the burger stand was built by Richard Morey. He had a construction firm that built numerous metal food stands around Los Angeles after World War II.
Hundreds of the eateries popped up on the edges of empty and odd-shaped lots around the city and were snapped up by returning GIs looking to start small businesses. Most have since disappeared, although burger fans have fought to save some, including Irv’s Burgers in West Hollywood.
Morey sold the stand at Santa Monica and Virgil to his son-in-law, Frank Goodwin Sr., for $3,000, said Frank Goodwin Jr., a Palm Desert wireless communications company vice president.
“My dad borrowed the money from his uncle. He worked 18 hours a day at the stand. He sold it a year later for $6,000 and bought a car” and went to work as a banker, he said.
Goodwin does not remember who bought the stand. But he said Coffin was the third owner. Coffin had a month-to-month ground lease that he claimed required that the stand be razed if the rental was terminated.
Coffin, now 87, and his 85-year-old wife, Petrel, live in an assisted-living complex in San Diego, Rojas said.
“I grew up in that stand,” Rojas said. “My parents bought it when I was 2. I remember sitting in front of the cash register and my feet dangling in the drawer. When I was older I’d go there with my girlfriends after church on Sundays. In junior and senior high we’d drive there. Then it was burgers after the clubs closed when I was older.”
Rojas, 39, lives in Highland Park with her husband, Joel, a plumber, and their 15-month-old daughter, Jolie. “I had her in a backpack sometimes when I was slinging burgers,” she said.
“This was my parents’ blood, sweat and tears. I can’t stand the idea of Jay’s ending like this. My dad loved that stand with all his heart. It was his dream.”
Burger fans, meantime, said they are hoping someone again intervenes to save Jay’s Jayburgers.
Don’t count on Michael Leko ever again slapping an egg-and-beef patty combo on the grill, however.
“It feels horrible seeing it gone the second time around. It feels like it felt the first time it closed,” he said.
“But you won’t be seeing me trying to do anything this time around. I went out on a limb to help them out once,” he said.
“I saved Jay’s Jayburger once, back in the day.”