By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
When it comes to an institution in a tightly knit community such as WeHo, loyalty adheres always to the people operating it, not the building in which it operates.
So it has gone for Irv’s Burgers and its owners, the Hong family, Sonia, Momma-soon and Sean, who got pushed out of their Route 66 burger joint digs recognized as a local cultural resource since September, 2005.
Jeffrey Prang, West Hollywood city council member and an eater (of too many, he’d say) Irv’s Burgers, says, “We can protect buildings, but we can’t make people Cultural Resources, as much as I would like to,” for surely the Hongs to a person would qualify.
The first development scare the Hongs went through was in 2004, when Irving Gendis, founder of Irv’s Burgers, leased the development rights for the property to a firm that courted Peet’s coffee, who needed to demolish the stand to build enough parking for the coffee shop.
In stepped the community-based Burger Brigade, a grassroots activist group formed expressly to save Irv’s, and Peet’s, upon realizing the adverse public reaction to their plans, backed away from the project.
The City Council designated the Irv’s Burgers restaurant as a local cultural resource on September 19, 2005, calling it one of the best examples of the roadside burger stands that once dotted America, especially along the street on which it stands, Route 66, or America’s highway.
The stand, because of its location on Route 66 and the classic American burger they serve, was included in “Hamburger America” by George Motz in a state-by-state guide to some of the best burgers in the country as representing a nearly lost breed of roadside burger stands.
The stand prospered for years with no dark clouds hanging over it until The Standard Oil Investment Group bought the land from Mr. Gendis.
The new developers had a new business plan offering sandy beach-like settings on major urban intersections (minus sounds of sea gulls and waves, plus the sound of tires, and honking horns) while selling juices and California’s ubiquitous “artisanal” sandwiches.
This plan had a “designer” concept which would “not work” with a 1950s Route 66 Burger stand ethos (why it would not work, no one has been able to say).
Of course, the Bohbot family that runs Standard Oil Investments, did what any self-respecting developer would do – lie about his intentions.
Despite Ms. Hong’s fears and claims that the management company sought to get rid of her through rent hikes and eviction notices, the managing partner, Steven Bohbot told WeHo News that he “doesn’t want the Hong family to leave. We love them; they are a great business and have much community goodwill.”
What they seemed to love about the Hongs, though, was their willingness to go to great lengths to remain in business in their stand, built up over more than a dozen years’ hard work.
Steven Bohbot also saw patsies to whom he could pawn off the cost of long deferred maintenance to the roof before tossing them out. He saw them as business people who would tolerate thousands of dollars a month increase in rent without complaint – apparently to offset the cost of his other restaurant build out.
They have come around, hat in hand, asking for permission to bury in the sand the Irv’s Burgers legacy once and for all.
They would turn the once proudly independent, the once community hub of Irv’s Burgers into a backup kitchen and storage warehouse for Beach Nation.
Nothing identifying the space as having had anything to do with Irv’s Burgers, the Burger Stands of Route 66, the “For you…” drawings accompanying every plate is contained in the plans.
They adhere to the bare minimum of the “character defining” requirements of the local cultural resource designation.
First, it is a burger stand (measuring approximately 132 sq. ft.) including lunch counter, wood double-hung windows, and corrugated roof and, second, it has a distinctive openness to the patio area.
The developer offered to keep those aspects of the design, as well as keep the Irv’s Burgers sign above the building, but Historic Preservation commissioners felt that not enough was done to honor Irv’s as a 1940-50s burger stand or keep it from being subsumed by the Beach Nation brand.
Other commissioners wondered about whether or not to rethink the original 2005 designation, which commissioner Ed Levin reportedly called a “feel good” designation.
The developers of Beach Nation will return with plans that will suit the commission’s suggestions in October.
The Hong family, by the way, is far too busy in their new digs at Laurel Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.
There continues to live the Irv’s 21st Century tradition of a Korean family making the most American of burgers for a Creative City that loves them more than any building they inhabit.
Because they never lost sight of the goal of community, not like the developers of Beach Nation have. The servers both times I have been in the place have hesitated to ask to assist me, to take my order.
Never have I felt that from Sonia Hong, all I have felt from her is joy in serving. Order a burger and look at your plate when served for a glimpse of the love.
Beach Nation may have sand and designer furniture, but they lack a soul. I doubt they will last long if they fail to find it.
Good bye Irv’s Burger stand, long live Irv’s Burgers.