Update: One day after managers and staff at Hamburg Inn No. 2 confirmed the restaurant would be closing in January, an attorney for owner Michael Lee told KCRG, “There are no plans to close the restaurant.” The attorney’s statement said, “The Hamburg Inn has been operating at reduced hours the last few weeks and will continue to do so for the next few weeks to make updates,”
The attorney’s statement on Saturday did not address the restaurant’s most pressing maintenance problem, the lack of functioning restrooms due to a sewer line break, or statements by managers that Hamburg Inn isn’t making enough money to pay its staff and cover its operating expenses.
On Saturday, there was still a handwritten note taped to the door at Hamburg Inn No. 2 cautioning patrons: “Be Advised No Restrooms.”
“We are open for carry-out & dine-in, but you all need to use the restrooms elsewhere along with all staff,” according to the sign.
Iconic Iowa City restaurant Hamburg Inn No. 2 “will be closing its doors on January 8, 2023,” Iowa News Now reported on Friday.
“Assistant Manager Katy Wells says the restaurant plans to close indefinitely,” according to the report. “At this time, Wells did not give a reason for the closure.”
KCRG also reported on the closing on Friday, stating that employees said they had been told “there were issues with maintenance in the building and a manager said it was unclear if the restaurant would be closed for good or just temporarily.”
Michael Lee, who bought the restaurant — famous nationally for decades as a spot where eager politicians with presidential ambitions woo voters during the Iowa Caucuses, and known locally for its pie shakes — in 2016 is reportedly out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Fritz and Fran Panther opened Hamburg Inn No. 2 at its Linn Street location in 1948. Fritz’s brother, Joe, had opened the first Hamburg Inn on Iowa Avenue in 1935. Another brother, Adrian, soon joined Joe and eventually bought the restaurant from him.
That first location closed in 1978, just two years before No. 2 gained national attention when candidate Ronald Reagan visited it for a famous photo-op during his 1980 run for president, meant to demonstrate the millionaire former movie star and one-time governor of the country’s most populous state was just a regular guy who enjoyed the atmosphere in a Midwestern diner.
After that clever piece of political image making, Hamburg Inn No. 2 became as much of a standard stop for Iowa Caucus candidates as the Iowa State Fair. Candidates for statewide office in Iowa have also made it a regular campaign stop.
Fritz and Adrian partnered to open Hamburg Inn No. 3 in Cedar Rapids in 1962. That location lasted into the 1970s, but closed before No. 1 did.
In 1979, Fritz and Fran’s son, David, who grew up at Hamburg Inn No. 2, bought it from his parents. He ran it in much the same way his parents did, although he did add such innovations as the Iowa Coffee Bean Caucus, a straw poll in which patrons voted by dropping coffee beans into jars labeled with the names of different candidates for office, building on the restaurant’s political reputation. Hamburg Inn became well-known enough to be featured on an episode of The West Wing. It also remained Iowa City enough to allow a low-budget indie comedy called Zadar! Cow from Hell to use it as a filming location.
Since buying the restaurant from David in 2016, Michael Lee has frequently talked about plans for expanding the Hamburg Inn beyond its one location, and possibly even franchising it. At the time of the purchase, Lee told the Gazette he was considering opening a second location in his hometown of Shanghai. That didn’t happen, but in September 2017 he did open a second location, also called Hamburg Inn No. 2, on Iowa City’s east side. That location closed in February 2020.