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Surviving the Shutdown: Bill’s Burgers says, ‘I’m not dead yet’

Bill Elwell, 93, is still flipping burgers at his roadside stand.
Bill Elwell, 93, is still flipping burgers at his roadside stand.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown has left many restaurants uncertain about their future. As smaller, less-heralded restaurants across the city grapple with new realities, we asked them to share their stories.

Bill Elwell has seen more changes than almost anyone still working in the restaurant business. He’s been flipping burgers at his Van Nuys hamburger stand since the 1960s and, at 93, he still spends his workdays behind a grill that predates the stand itself.

A World War II veteran, Elwell bought the stand in 1965, and very little has changed since then, pandemics notwithstanding. On Thursday morning, I waited for my double cheeseburger standing — six feet away — from two DWP workers picking up lunch, a guy with a mask and a Dodgers cap, and a sanitation truck driver ordering a double combo.

How has the safer-at-home order affected Elwell and his business?

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“Don’t affect me. I got money,” he said, as gruff as he’s always been.

“I am thinking of closing,” he said after a pause. “Maybe this month. My legs are tired. I’m 93,” he said. “COVID’s got nothing to do with it. I’m tired.”

Bill Elwell of Bill’s Burgers waits for customers to order takeout at his Van Nuys burger stand.
Bill Elwell of Bill’s Burgers waits for customers to order takeout at his Van Nuys burger stand.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Elwell’s stand has always been a tiny, neighborhood business; the only difference since the order came down that closed dine-in restaurants is that the window above the counter is shut and the chairs upon which locals used to sit are gone. Now diners hand over cash (it’s always been cash) at the window and take their burgers away in paper bags.

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Hiroko Wilcox, a longtime friend of Elwell’s who has worked at the stand with him for more than two decades — the stand once went by the name “Bill and Hiroko’s Burgers” — was assembling the burgers that Elwell had grilled.

“We’re making less than half as before,” she said of the business since the pandemic hit Los Angeles. As for their supply chain, Elwell said that he’d had some problems getting supplies a few weeks ago, but he has “no real trouble” getting them now.

“Why they bought so much toilet paper?” he asked. ”A bunch of expletive out there. Put that in your paper.”

The Double Cheese Burger from Bill’s Burgers.
The double cheeseburger from Bill’s Burgers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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When Elwell reiterated his intention to close the place, the sanitation truck driver, a regular, pointed out that he’d been saying that for the last 10 years. Elwell paused, then clarified that he wouldn’t close the stand if he does, finally, decide to retire, but sell it to one of the many people who have offered to buy it over the years.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said, then went back to flipping burgers.

14742 Oxnard St., Van Nuys; (818) 785-4086


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