"This isn’t some corporate restaurant where the décor and food look exactly the same no matter what city or state you’re in."
Welcome to Hamburger Mary’s, the only restaurant franchise in the country that caters to the LGBT community. Your food will be served with a side of sass, though it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, or indifferent because during the day it’s a fun place to eat and as an added bonus, the Long Beach location features The Brunchettes, the only daytime drag show in Southern California. Hamburger Mary’s is the great middle ground, the place you can bring your straight friend and your partner without either feeling uncomfortable- and the food ain’t half bad, either.
Mary’s, as it’s affectionately known, began as a dive bar and burger joint in the SOMA District of San Francisco over 40 years ago. The eventual franchise’s history is shrouded in mystery, as the initial owners parted ways and ownership of the original location changed hands several times.
What’s known for sure is that there was no Mary, the name most likely stemming from a term widely used for homosexuals at the time. There was a Trixie, however, who’s believed to be the man behind the big idea to create a gay-friendly burger joint.
In 2001, the final owners of the original San Francisco location, Rose Christensen and Amy Schloss, decided to sell, but by then Mary’s had already opened in other locations. Though the locations on the West Coast did have licensing agreements, there were no franchise standards. That all changed in 2007 when the Hamburger Mary’s franchise system was sold to Dale Warner of West Hollywood and twin brothers Ashley and Brandon Wright of Chicago. Mary’s now has 11 locations in total, including the West Hollywood and Long Beach spots and while the SoCal locations are in “gayborhoods,” it’s important to note that others, such as the St. Louis, Kansas City, and Milwaukee locations, are successfully operating outside of predominantly gay neighborhoods.
“Any resistance we’ve experienced about opening somewhere like Kansas City just comes from preconceived notions that community members have about an LGBT-friendly place,” Wright said. “If nothing else, when Mary’s opens in what we might consider to be a ‘surprising’ location, it opens a lot of people’s eyes and allows them to step away from the assumptions they had about the gay community, namely that we’re sex crazed. These are just restaurants, but they’re also showing people who don’t identify as LGBT that we’re just like them: we want to go to a restaurant with our partner and eat, drink, and have a good time.”
According to Wright, the reason why the Mary’s idea was so important in the 1970’s when the first location opened was because at the time, many gay bars were in dark alleys, not the ideal place to grab a drink with a straight friend. At the same time, there were very few restaurants where a gay couple could comfortably – and openly – share a meal together. Essentially, Mary’s killed two birds with one stone.
Jewels, the entertainment director at the Long Beach Mary’s (and a legendary and ubiquitous drag performer in the Long Beach area), has been running the Long Beach-based Hamburger Mary’s drag revues for more than a decade and believes the beauty of Mary’s is in its quirks. For example, while the Long Beach location turns into a night club after a certain hour, hosting events like T-girl Tuesdays, other locations operate as more of a restaurant with a weekly karaoke night.
“This isn’t some corporate restaurant where the décor and food look exactly the same no matter what city or state you’re in,” Jewels said. “Milwaukee may not be a gay mecca, but I would argue that cities like that are more in need of a fun, gay-friendly place. I’ve been performing at the brunch service for a long time, and I can say that almost half of the people there are straight. Mary’s just isn’t working in ‘progressive’ California; it’s working in Middle America too because it’s a welcoming environment for gays and it’s not too over the top and in your face for straights. It’s just fun, damn it, and there aren’t any other places out there where straight people and gay people can mingle and have a meal.”
Mary’s franchise owners just might be on to something. National statistics show that in percentage, the gay and lesbian market is the most affluent and loyal group of all and gay men and lesbians go out more, buy more, have more disposable income, and are extremely loyal consumers.
Even in 2012, a family-friendly chain restaurant can be an uncomfortable place for a gay couple to hold hands or be affectionate in the way that straight couples don’t think twice about. Jewels is quick to point out that from a franchise standpoint, the gay community is incredibly under-served, with no national chain restaurants being openly LGBT-friendly.
So, while Mary’s is a fun place to grab a bite, hang out with friends, and catch a drag show, it’s also a glaring reminder that the LGBT community is all too often segregated, providing few opportunities for many people of many different orientations and identities to co-exist in one setting – and that’s why Mary’s is important. Not to mention that the franchise owners place a great deal of importance on giving back to the communities they serve, no matter where those communities happen to be. Many Mary’s locations have weekly charity Bingo events hosted by drag personalities, while other locations choose to give back by throwing fundraisers or sponsoring local sports leagues.
“Sure it’s a fun place, but we also take our responsibility to the LGBT community and to the communities we serve very seriously,” Wright said. “We want a Mary’s in every city, especially in the cities that need us the most. We want to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, Birmingham, Alabama, Boston, MA and everywhere in between. As long as we can continue to bring people together and attract a forward thinking, fun, young, gay-friendly crowd, I’ll feel like we’ve been successful, no matter how many locations we open up.”