“The birthplace of the American hamburger is in danger. Louis’ Lunch, a tiny restaurant here where man reputedly first put a chopped steak patty between two pieces of bread, will be replaced within a year or so by a 12‐story medical complex the city says it needs more urgently.
Both the city redevelopment agency and Kenneth Lassen, grandson of the inventor and the present owner, say they are willing to compromise somehow, but eviction proceedings are only months away and no agreement has been reached.
‘They hem and haw and tell me to wait and wait,’ Mr. Lassen said. ‘The next thing you know, a piece of American history will be sitting on the sidewalk.’
It was in 1900, according to Mr. Lassen and affidavits by relatives who worked in the restaurant at the time, that Louis Lassen created the hamburger in response to the demands of his customers for a quick, tasty takeout food. The restaurant was founded in 1895.
A Landmark Since 1967
The only other serious challenge to the title is a theory supported by the McDonald’s Corporation, the giant nationwide hamburger chain. Historians at McDonald’s Hamburger University have researched the problem, the company says, and claim the inventor was an unknown food vender at the St. Louis Fair of 1904, which also produced the first icecream cone and the first iced tea.
‘Oh, that’s the story put out by this guy McDonald hired to shoot us down,’ Mr. Lassen said. ‘Somebody may have served hamburgers at the fair in 1904, but we invented it in 1900. Great inventions have a way of being invented again and again.’
The New Haven Preservation Trust was sufficiently impressed with a voluminously documented history of the invention of the hamburger submitted by Mr. Lassen that it declared the dimly lighted 12-by‐18‐foot brick building a historic landmark in 1967. Landmark status will have no effect on the bulldozers.
‘This may be New Haven’s partiality to its own,’ the trust said in declaring Louis’ a landmark, ‘but unless someone comes up with better facts, dating from an earlier time, the Preservation Trust is willing to believe that New Haven was the first with the hamburger as well as the first with a commercial telephone exchange, the agricultural experiment station, the American dictionary and the cotton gin.’
Hamburgers are still served at Louis Lunch as they were in 1900, Mr. Lassen said—between two pieces of toast, and no catchup, lettuce, pickles, mayonnaise or other fancy modern affectations.
‘That’s the way my father and grandfather did it,’ he said. ‘I put so much darn work into the food, what with grinding the meat myself and everything—that it’s too good to ruin with catchup.’
‘The secret ingredient is the meat, that’s all,’ he said. The hamburger—a quarter pound of lean beef ground from cuts ranging from neck to sirloin—that cost 7 cents in 1900 is 80 cents today.
3 Seats at Counter
The fast food trade that prompted the invention of the hamburger in the first place still comes to Louis’. There are three seats at the counter, but anyone sitting there spends half as much time passing orders and change to standees in the back as in eating.
Everyone from Dr. Alvin Greenberg, a neurosurgeon who heads a consortium of 60 doctors putting up the private medical complex, to William Donohue, the city’s urban renewal chief, says he wants to save Louis’, but somehow a solution isn’t in sight.
‘They’ve been conciliatory and agreeable all along,’ Mr. Lassen said. ‘Then in October they announced this medical center deal and they’re getting more determined to get us out. I’m not opposed to the medical center—it’s probably the best thing that could happen to the city. All I want is a decent, realistic place to move my restaurant to.’
‘They want me to move the building inside the new parking garage they’re going to build next to the medical center,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that a ridiculous place for a restaurant? I’m willing to move down the block or around the corner—let them build the center over me, in the air rights over a new site. All I need is a piece of land 30 by 30 feet—the building could be jacked up and moved.’
‘What Mr. Lassen wants is impossible,’ Mr. Donohue said. ‘We have a 90,000 square‐foot parcel, and we can’t cut it into pieces. It’s so hard to get any development to come into a city and spend millions of dollars—we’ve had that site for sale for years. You can’t tell them you have to do this and you have to do that and then on top of everything you have to make room for a hamburger stand. It’s a question of whether the tail wags the dog or the dog wags the tail.’
‘We’ve been very good to Mr. Lassen,’ he said. ‘This has been going on for eight years, and we’ve kept up the vacant building next door to Louis’—the place is really just a lean‐to supported by the place next door—and kept him supplied with utilities. But the real pressure is only months away.’
‘He’s reluctant to take any other spot than the one he’s in now, and that one is right smack where the medical center will be,’ Mr. Donohue said.
Mr. Lassen is confident of surviving somehow although he’s been an evictable tenant of the city since 1965, when it bought the corner of Temple and George Streets for a downtown urban renewal project and began knocking down buildings.
‘Somehow every guy in the eight years this has been going on who tried to get rid of us has retired, gotten fired or moved away,’ he said. ‘The big guy upstairs seems to like us.'”
-Excerpt courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, “Burger Birthplace Faces Bulldozer,” by Michael Knight, January 12, 1974. (top) Image courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, photo by James Meehan, 1974
Save Louis’ Lunch
“I saw recently where the federal government is making a national landmark or some such thing out of Mr. Nixon’s former California law offices.
They were just ordinary looking law offices, but when a man becomes President, practically everything he touched on the way up is designated a second-class relic. At least that’s what the public relations folks in Washington would like you to think.
I bring this to your attention because, while the Washington boys are running around anointing Mr. Nixon’s rather mundane law offices, one of our most sacred landmarks is about to be buried under a 14-story medical center. And the government isn’t lifting a finger.
Of course, I’m talking about Louis’ Lunch, the tiny 79-year old restaurant in New Haven, Conn., where the hamburger sandwich was invented. The Lassen family, owners of the stand for three generations, has been ordered to vacate the location by the end of the month.
I don’t know how you feel about the hamburger, but I think it’s done more for America than Richard Nixon’s law offices. It’s probably even done more for America than Richard Nixon.
In short, Louis’ Lunch deserves a far better fate than a bulldozer blade.
If the government will not save the hamburger’s first home, I have the perfect solution. McDonald’s should offer to finance the moving of Louis’ to any site the owners choose. Not only would that be terrific public relations for the giant firm, it would be meeting what is almost a moral obligation.
Chew on this, McDonald’s. Where would you be today without Louis’ Lunch?”
-Excerpt courtesy of Newspapers.com, The West Palm Beach Post, “Save Louis’ Lunch,” by Jim Fiebig, April 17, 1974