End to Iowa caucus legend: Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City may close – Iowa City Press-Citizen

Hamburg Inn No. 2, the historic Iowa City diner known for its “Coffee Bean Caucus” and visits from politicians and presidents, may close, at least temporarily, after serving customers in Iowa City for decades, a longtime employee said.
Hamburg Inn’s manager, Robert “Ajax” Ehl confirmed the restaurant’s closure to the Press-Citizen on Friday. Jan. 8, 2023, will be its last day serving customers, he said. Ehl said the business is not making enough money to cover its bills.
Ehl said it is “up to the owner” whether the closure is permanent or temporary. Michael Lee owns both the building at 214 N Linn Street and the business itself after he purchased it from the Panther family in 2016.
“The bottom line is I can’t stay open if I can’t pay my employees and I’m not going to ask them to work for free,” said Ehl, who started as a dishwasher 18 years ago and became manager nine months ago.
But Saturday morning, KCRG television reported that an attorney representing the Hamburg Inn said the restaurant would remain open, albeit with limited hours and services.
“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,” Kim Baer told the station. “There are no plans to close the restaurant.”
The potential closure comes eight months after the Hamburg Inn No. 2 was cited by Johnson County Public Health for a dozen health code violations, including not confirming employees were washing their hands, missing proper certifications, food debris being left on machinery and other violations.
A sign in the window of the business on Friday stated that the restaurant’s bathrooms were not available for use by customers.
With its closure, Iowa political culture would lose an iconic piece of caucus history in the same year that the Democratic National Committee chose to strip the Iowa of its first-in-the-nation presidential selection status. The Republican National Committee plans to keep the Iowa caucuses first on its presidential nominating calendar.
Ahead of any election, politicians from both parties regularly visited the diner including Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama.
Known for Pie Shakes, comfort food and traditional diner fare, the walls of the Hamburg Inn No. 2 are adorned with newspaper clippings and photos of elected officials who made visits.
Starting in 2003, the restaurant featured mason jars labeled with the names of national and state office candidates in upcoming elections on it front counter. Customers have allowed to cast one vote, or drop one bean, into the jar for the candidate of their choice. 
By 2005, the Iowa City restaurant, or a soundstage version of it, was featured in the “The West Wing” episode “King Corn.”
More:How Hamburg Inn No. 2’s Coffee Bean Caucus helped make the Iowa City diner a star
Ehl said he had no idea what the impact the loss of the historic restaurant would be to Iowa City or on politics.
Ehl said staffing has been difficult and of COVID-19 brought on “a hard couple of years” for the Hamburg Inn No. 2.
He said during the pandemic the business closed down for a couple months and started back up with about a half a dozen employees and slowly built back up to a full crew of about 22 and regular business hours.
When Lee, a native of China who had frequented the restaurant as a university student, bought the restaurant in 2016 he told the Press-Citizen that at one point he stopped in for lunch and expressed the desire to then-owner Dave Panther to get a location open in China. He was later offered the opportunity to buy the restaurant.
“I would like to see probably 12 to 15 restaurants in the state of Iowa,” Lee said. “I hope that we can do that within our first year.”
In 2017, Lee told the Press-Citizen “his plan is to open nearly 30 Hamburg Inn locations across the state in the near future — as well as numerous other locations throughout the country.”
In August 2017, the restaurant did open a new location on Iowa City’s Eastside. That location closed less than three years after opening at 2221 Rochester Ave in 2020.
In 2019, then-General Manager Seth Dudley reported plans to open another Hamburg Inn No. 2 on Coral Ridge Ave. in spring 2020 and start a food truck.
George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen’s local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at (319) 214-5039, [email protected] and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge

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