Tomy’s Hamburgers. Tom’s Number 5 Chiliburgers. Tam’s Burgers. Tommy’s Famous Drive-Thru. Thomas Hamburgers. Tom’s #1 World Famous Chiliburgers. Tomboy’s Famous Chili Hamburgers. Tom’s Jr. Famous Chili Burgers. Tom’s Original Super Burger. Tommy’s Charbroiled Hamburgers. Tommy’s Burgers.
All of them are Los Angeles area fast-food spots that sell chili burgers. And none of them is Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers.
A local institution, revered by many as a nostalgic L.A. throwback, Tommy’s has been turning out hamburgers smothered in greasy beef chili since 1946. But even as the Monrovia chain has expanded to 33 locations in California and Nevada, burger stands that appear to be aping it in both style and substance have proliferated even faster.
According to an analysis by The Times, there are 67 restaurants in and around Los Angeles County that appear to be Tommy’s knockoffs.
These places have a few things in common: They sell chili burgers and have names featuring a “Thomas” derivation or ones that sound extremely similar, like Tam’s or Tomy’s. Some deploy signage or other visuals that are reminiscent of the red-and-white color scheme and script lettering used by Tommy’s.
And they’ve spread in part because Tommy’s has allowed them to.
Bob Auerbach, a stepson of the late Tommy’s founder Tom Koulax and the chain’s regional supervisor, said the family business has made a choice not to aggressively pursue legal action against imitators — partly because such an effort would be a distraction. He said it’s a form of “flattery” that pretenders have opened across the region.
“They’re kind of like little bugs — they’re out there,” said Auerbach. “The fact that people are imitating us is like, ‘Oh, we’re doing something right.’ If we defend ourselves with every single one, it takes away energy from doing what we’re doing here.”
Auerbach believes the would-be copycats are borne out of frustration — and envy — because Tommy’s does not offer franchising opportunities. He said the spate of competitors hasn’t hurt business but conceded he has fielded phone calls from customers complaining about a poor experience at an eatery mistaken for Tommy’s.
Tommy’s is arguably the most famous fast-food burger chain to come out of the Southland besides a few operations that long ago went national: McDonald’s, In-N-Out Burger, Carl’s Jr. and Fatburger.
It is a place where a polyglot city comes together. Cops, construction workers with sunburned noses, possibly truant teens, besuited drivers of Bimmers, lots of abuelas and halmeonis, and a real estate agent from a bus bench ad were all at the original Tommy’s stand at Beverly and Rampart boulevards for lunch on a recent weekday. They all waited in line for a chili burger — made with mustard, chopped onions, pickles, cheese, beefsteak tomato and a plain bun — and possibly some regret.
“Oh, why did I get a double? I shouldn’t have gotten a double,” said a woman in a blue blouse as she picked up her order.
Some diners said that they had been fooled by an impostor Tommy’s before.
“The signs are very similar. I didn’t know,” said Charlene Green, a food service training specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But as soon as I was eating it, I could taste the difference. The chili does not taste the same.”
John Villa said he once tried Tomboy’s in Lawndale — purposely, but only because it was close to home.
“It was bland in comparison to the chili here,” he said. “For me, it’s the taste. That’s the biggest difference. Not going to do it again.”
Mapping the apparent Tommy’s knockoffs
Analysis by The Times found 67 fast-food spots in and around Los Angeles County that appeared to be imitating Original Tommy's World Famous Hamburgers — more than double the chain’s 33 locations.
At a time when companies assiduously guard their intellectual property, the scale of the phenomenon is surprising. Still, legal experts said that the chain’s mostly hands-off approach makes sense.
“I actually think they’ve made a pretty smart decision,” said attorney Elizabeth Sbardellati, whose practice is focused on intellectual property. “There is no real proprietary right to sell a chili burger ... and [people’s] names are pretty difficult to protect. And it would probably be difficult at this point in time for Tommy’s to choose a target and go after it, because so many other Tom’s and Tomy’s have popped up without action being taken.”
The Times reached out to the owners or managers of 27 burger stands that appear to be mimicking Tommy’s. Most did not respond to interview requests; a few, when reached by telephone, hung up after being told the focus of this story.
But some shared their perspectives, providing explanations for opening eerily similar establishments. One proprietor said he named his restaurant after himself. Another said he chose the name because of its brevity. And then there’s Tom Zevgaras, owner of Tomboy’s in Manhattan Beach and Lawndale.
“We just tried to copy them,” he said. “I wanted to put it close to ‘Tommy’s.’”
Despite Auerbach’s permissive attitude, the chain has, on occasion, taken legal action against competitors. It has some ammunition: Since 1978, Tommy’s has had a California trademark for its full name, Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers. (It also has a similar trademark in Nevada.) Copy the name or logo, which depicts the original stand, and “you’re going to get a letter from me, or a visit or a phone call,” Auerbach said.
According to legal databases that cover state and federal courts, Tommy’s has filed a handful of lawsuits over the last four decades that include trademark or copyright infringement claims. In a Los Angeles County Superior Court case from 1991 that is typical of its efforts, Tommy’s secured a permanent injunction against Original Tomy’s World Famous Chili Hamburgers that restricted it from using that name.
In 2009, Tommy’s filed a similar complaint in federal court against Tommy’s Original Chili Factory, a Marina del Rey business that sold chili via the Internet and was operated by Tommy Koulax Jr., son of the Tommy’s founder. The suit was settled after the chili company agreed to stop using that name, records show.
A restaurant’s name may be vital, but so is the food. And in the case of Tommy’s competitors, they aren’t all equal.
The Times tried chili burgers from 10 apparent Tommy’s knockoffs across L.A. Some veered far from the Tommy’s formula, making burgers with shredded lettuce, mayonnaise or poppyseed buns. But a couple resembled an authentic Tommy’s burger — including one from Thomas Hamburgers in Marina del Rey, whose verisimilitude extended to the yellow and white paper wrappers in which it was served.
Owner Thomas Gountoumas, who said his eatery is named after himself, was pleased to hear it. “Thank you very much; that’s good,” he said.
Despite the similarities, Gountoumas said customers have never been vexed by his restaurant’s identity, adding that he doesn’t know much about Tommy’s.
“To be honest with you, I’ve never tried Tommy’s,” said Gountoumas, who also is co-owner of Tomy’s Hamburgers in Garden Grove.
He was quick to point out the other items on Thomas Hamburgers’ menu, including fish tacos, which he said distinguished his restaurant from Tommy’s.
Jimmy Karpouzis, who runs Tom’s #1 World Famous Chiliburgers (with locations in Carson, Wilmington, Ontario and Lake Elsinore) made the same argument: He said his menu features a “crap-load of other stuff.”
He said his father, Angelo, who owns Tom’s #1, chose the chain’s name in part for its numerical significance.
“He always liked the number one because he thought his burgers were better than anyone else’s, quality-wise,” Karpouzis said of his dad. “It was never because we were trying to copy Tommy’s, which is kind of ironic.”
But, he acknowledged that over the years some customers have come in expecting the original Tommy’s.
“I can see how the average person might confuse it,” he said. “That’s why we emphasize '#1.’”
Auerbach, who has sought out the apparent impostors’ food, said there should be no confusion over the burgers served at Tommy’s and its competitors.
“I’ll even go try out their burgers — I’m curious,” said Auerbach, who has traveled as far as Utah to check out what he considered to be an imitator. “You know, a lot of times I think they take a can of Hormel chili and just put it on a burger. I mean, it’s dripping, it’s soupy. It’s just not good.”
Tommy’s has also sought to minimize confusion, using a slogan — “If you don’t see the shack, take it back!” — in marketing materials.
If Tommy’s were interested in more forcefully pursuing its rivals in California and beyond on legal grounds, a federal trademark could help its case. But in 1985, Tommie’s World Famous Hamburgers, a now-closed chain that once had several locations across the L.A. area, secured a federal trademark for its name.
Sbardellati, who reviewed United States Patent and Trademark Office records at The Times’ request, said the existence of the Tommie’s federal trademark led Tommy’s to be denied one of its own when it applied twice in 2003.
Regardless, in any legal action against a similarly-named burger restaurant, Tommy’s would likely have to prove the willfulness of the alleged infringement in order to succeed.
“There would be a question of, ‘Did you choose the name to trade on the goodwill and established popularity of Tommy’s?’” Sbardellati said. “When there is a name, that is considered a weak mark. Particularly a name that isn’t unique.”
The fact that people are imitating us is like, ‘Oh, we’re doing something right.’ If we defend ourselves with every single one, it takes away energy from doing what we’re doing here.
The phenomenon is occasionally amusing to Auerbach. Once, he said, a secret-shopper company used by Tommy’s for quality control delivered a harsh report on one location, detailing a long wait, irregular pricing and terrible chili. The shopper, Auerbach said, had accidentally gone to a knockoff Tommy’s.
“It was embarrassing for the secret-shopper company,” Auerbach said. “They’re like, ‘Whoops, our guy went to the wrong place!’”
There is, indeed, plenty of room for confusion. And yet Auerbach still welcomes would-be competitors with a challenge.
“If your name is Tom,” Auerbach said, “I invite you to sell hamburgers in the city of Los Angeles. There’s a lot of people here and they like good hamburgers. ... But, good luck. We’ve been doing it longer than any of y’all.”
That sanguine outlook may serve Auerbach well. Because waging a legal war to try to become the only Tommy’s in town would likely “cost too much money,” said attorney Jonathan Steinsapir, whose practice is focused on intellectual property.
“And I mean, part of the Tommy’s story is that there are so many ripoffs,” he said. “At least people from L.A. know that.”