Walk into the new Hamburg Inn East location in Iowa City, and the first thing that stands out are the photos on the walls. Presidents and politicians, celebrities and longtime Hamburg staff greet customers from their wooden frames, just as they do at the long-standing Hamburg Inn No. 2 location in downtown Iowa City.
The photos at the new location are all copies of the originals that have long documented the diner’s status as a mecca for those looking for a hearty breakfast and the political candidates hoping to woo them.
Recapturing the feel of an eatery steeped in years of tradition and memories is no easy feat, but it’s the goal Hamburg Inn East general manager Jordan Arneal has tasked himself with.
That means building relationships with regulars, encouraging community groups to use the space for fundraisers and participating in community events, he said.
“It’s trusting the legacy of Hamburg Inn,” Arneal said. “And it’s making sure we don’t lose the luster of being part of the community and becoming a mainstay wherever we end up.”
The new location, tucked next to a gas station across the street from Regina High School, opened Aug. 14. If all goes as planned, it will be the first of a string of new Hamburg Inn locations, perhaps as far away as China.
Longtime Hamburg owner Dave Panther sold the restaurant to Michael Lee in March. Lee, a Hamburg fan, had discussed opening a Shanghai location with Panther, and their conversations eventually led to the sale. Lee, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 1968 with a journalism degree, is the CEO of Academic Studies Abroad, a Shanghai-based organization that fosters educational exchanges between the United States and China and Taiwan.
He has grand plans to spread the iconic Iowa diner overseas, but the first step is making sure a second Iowa City location can thrive while staying true to Hamburg Inn’s spirit.
The restaurant first opened in the mid-1930s on Iowa Avenue, and Dave Panther bought the 214 N. Linn St. location from his parents in 1979. It has become known for pie shakes, omelets and politics, as the host of the Iowa Coffee Bean Caucus and as a must-stop for politicians, including Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 2003.
The new location is tiny, less than 1,000 square feet. The original plan was for it to be an “express” location, where people could pick up food to go.
“But that’s just not what Hamburg Inn is about, to get you in and out of the door as soon as possible,” Arneal said. “Iowa City has known the downtown location forever. There are a lot of families on this side of town who already know us.”
Part of Arneal’s task is using Hamburg Inn East, with its built-in fan base, as a test restaurant of sorts for expansion. That means standardizing the menu’s recipes and documenting best practices. The eventual goal is a manual a franchisee can use to recreate Hamburg Inn in other places. Before they get to China, they’re thinking of closer locations like North Liberty or Ames.
“Downtown, you can see the history. Trying to take all of that and put it in a book where people can read instructions on how to open a Hamburg Inn is really hard,” Arneal said. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever taken on.”
WHAT: Hamburg Inn East
WHERE: 2221 Rochester Ave., Iowa City
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
DETAILS: (319) 519-2500, Hamburginn2.com