Can you believe it?? Hamburger Mary’s is 40 years old! Yes, the very first Hamburger Mary’s was open in 1972 in San Francisco!
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY’S (a brief history)… The original Hamburger Mary’s was the brainchild of a small group of hippies living in San Francisco in the early 70′s. “We were extremely poor,” says Bob Charles, the last surviving founder of Mary’s. “We were living on food stamps, SSI, and peace and love. But we had some drug-induced fantasies of owning our own ‘anti-establishment’ bar/restaurant, run on our own relaxed and laid back agenda.”
With just $500 (a fortune for them at the time), they set out to open a gay-owned, people-friendly gathering spot where everyone was welcome. Without much cash, they began their operation on a shoestring budget. Shopping at flea markets and in second-hand stores, they outfitted the original Hamburger Mary’s with mismatched wooden chairs and odd shaped tables. The dishes and flatware patterns were unrelated and often irregular items, which added to the charm. Keeping to their hippy tendencies, the original location was named “Hamburger Mary’s Organic Grille.”
Hamburger Mary’s was a success! A bar was added on the one-year anniversary, and soon the owners expanded to add locations in Portland, Hawaii and Seattle. Pretty soon, there were Hamburger Mary’s up and down the West Coast (some had licensing agreements, others were just copy-cats). In 1988, the loosely-knit group of restaurants were molded into a true franchise organization.
Partners Stan Sax and Darren Woolsey opened the original franchised location in Palm Springs, and soon after took over the helm of Hamburger Mary’s International. Under Stan and Darren, Mary headed eastward and franchises opened as far and wide as Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Phoenix, West Hollywood, Denver and Chicago.
Under Stan and Darren, the first efforts were made to come up with common menu items and recipes. But staying true to the spirit of the original Hamburger Mary’s, the new franchisees were given free range to incorporate mismatched dinnerware, colorfully framed artwork (hung in crooked collages), and boldly painted walls. Walking into any Hamburger Mary’s is like walking into Mary’s home, with each location a little unique in its eclectic décor (yet all the same, “very Mary”).
Stan Sax attributes the rise of Hamburger Mary’s to its openness and acceptance of diversity. “Rather than the usual gay & lesbian operations that had previously been situated in back alleys or in second-rate locations, Hamburger Mary’s and her owners stood proud in centrally located neighborhoods,” says Stan. “Our clean operation with fresh food showed the general public they could enjoy a meal in comfort at Hamburger Mary’s. Of course, by happy hour the ‘pink cloud’ descended and the gay and lesbian crowd poured in. No one was ever turned away from Mary’s.”
Although the original locations in San Francisco and Hawaii had long closed, by the mid-2000’s Hamburger Mary’s had reached a peak. There were eleven locations nationwide, but many franchisees were restless. One-by-one, they opted not to renew their franchise agreements. Banking on their own success (and tired of paying royalties), many local owners decided to change the name of their operations. But they soon found out that their customer loyalty was to the name and Mary’s concept, and one-by-one most of the “formerly Hamburger Mary’s” closed within a year or two.
With only four locations left (West Hollywood, Palm Springs, Denver and Chicago), many people thought Hamburger Mary’s was down for the count. But Mary’s found new blood in 2007, when the franchise owners of West Hollywood (Dale Warner) and Chicago (twin brothers Ashley and Brandon Wright) pooled their resources to purchase the Master Franchise.
With successful franchise locations of their own and a shared love of the Hamburger Mary’s concept, the three new business partners became instant friends and got to work rebuilding the brand. Their efforts have paid off, and there are now twelve locations (the most there have ever been open at one time). More locations are slated to open soon. “Our ultimate goal is to have a Hamburger Mary’s in every major city” says Dale. “After all, everyone needs a place to ‘Eat, Drink, and be… MARY!’”
An important virtue that remains key to Hamburger Mary’s today is a commitment to community and environment. “One thing that sets Hamburger Mary’s apart from other restaurants is our fervent commitment to supporting our local communities,” says Ashley. “From hosting charity bingo events and fundraisers to sponsoring local athletic leagues and theatre troops, each location does its part to give back to its community”. Over the years, Hamburger Mary’s has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthwhile organizations, and has also made strides to be more “green” and reduce their impact on the environment.
Although Mary doesn’t look 40, her warm hospitality and “open-minded spirit” have helped her prosper. To mark the occasion, Hamburger Mary’s locations nationwide will be celebrating Mary’s birthday with parties, drag shows and events this fall. “Each location is going to celebrate in their own way,” says Brandon. “So be on the lookout this fall!”