Iowa City's treasure brings in the gold

Hamburg Inn attracks presidential candidates to small town Iowa

By Megan Eckhardt
Iowa Presidential

Mike Brunette / Iowa Presidential
Good Eats: Gen. Wesley Clark talks to supporters at Iowa City's Hamburg Inn No. 2.

University of Iowa seniors Tashia Welling and Matt Nelson sit waiting for a chocolate shake in the dark wooden seats of Booth 2 at Hamburg Inn No. 2 on a Monday afternoon in Iowa City.

Although the pair eats at the restaurant, 214 N. Linn St., once every three weeks, they are unaware they are sitting in Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) special seat.

As the presidential race heats up, several candidates have made cameos at Iowa City's political hot spot, with others planning on it in the future. In fact, the diner, known for its burgers and omelets, sent out special invitations to the ten candidates -- three of which have already accepted, said Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther.

Kucinich, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Retired Gen. Wesley Clark have all made appearances within the last month, as displayed on the photo adorned north wall of the restaurant. Invitations were sent out to help celebrate the business' 50th anniversary and to "tune people into the caucuses," Panther said.

"Hamburg Inn is a 'must meet the people' place in Iowa," he said. Hamburg Inn #2, opened in 1948, is the only one remaining Hamburgs of three originals. "We're kind of working to promote [the caucuses] a little more. Exposure is
good for us."

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, showed up at Hamburg Inn on Tuesday to meet with University of Iowa student groups, Panther said.

The political attention for the restaurant began years ago when former President Ronald Reagan made a stop after giving a speech in 1984, Panther said. Former President Bill Clinton came in for a vanilla shake last spring -- designating the seat along the north wall as the "Presidential Table."

"When Clinton came we couldn't even get to the register," said Hamburg Inn Manager Steve Fugate, who has worked at the tiny restaurant for 23 years. "I think that's kind of the lure. When you get a lot of people in a small space,
it builds the excitement.

"I wish they'd just have more time to eat."

Fugate attributes the visits to the unique Hamburg Inn atmosphere and the variety of people.

"It's more the flavor of the place; its more down home," he said. "You wouldn't want to go to a chain. It's not fakey."

Kucinich, a vegan, has come to chat with customers -- not eat -- several times this fall, claiming Booth 2 as his special seat, said Fugate.

"Dennis Kucinich blows me away," Fugate said, adding he's partial to the candidate. "He's the only one who votes the way his mouth speaks."

John Friedrich, Kucinich's Iowa Press Secretary, said Kucinich made appearances at the restaurant because he's a big supporter of local business and his best supporters in Iowa City are Hamburg regulars.

"I think mostly it's a local Iowa City mainstay and he likes to support the little guy," Friedrich said, adding that Kucinich will go there again. Kucinich is not alone, as most of the political visitors haven't indulged in Hamburg Inn's infamous hamburgers.

"When there's tons of eyes on you, you're not going to be stuffing your face," he said, adding that instead staffs are able to enjoy the restaurant's treats -- Clinton's staff bought hundreds of dollars worth of Hamburg Inn T-shirts.

Fugate said he expects to see more political candidates in the near future. "If people can build a buzz or hum here in Iowa, it's a multiplier. It should heat up as time goes on."

E-mail Megan Eckhardt at [email protected]

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