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Election 2008

Hamburg Inn

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Everything's a little different in Iowa these days, now that the Iowa caucuses have moved to Jan. 3. As most Americans gather for long, lazy breakfasts in diners this weekend, Iowans gathering for long, lazy breakfasts might be interrupted by sudden appearances from Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani. That's the case at the Hamburg Inn #2 in Iowa City. It's a regular, unassuming diner that just happens to get a lot of famous guests: Barack Obama stopping in for an omelet, John McCain grabbing a vanilla malt. We talk to Dave Panther, the owner of "The Burg," and manager Liz Sanders about how their restaurant became a stop on the road to the White House.

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By John Moe

A weekend breakfast at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, Iowa, is a lot like breakfast at thousands of diners across America. There are pancakes, coffee, and according to owner Dave Panther, you'll have to wait for a table.

"Saturday and Sunday are really the gravy days for us," he says, "That's when people have a lot of time and they're ready to treat themselves. So Saturday and Sunday is when we do breakfast and we're selling that all day long and we got them lined up out the door."

But the Burg, as it's called, has one key difference: clientele. Sure there are local regulars and hungover college kids. But sometimes, according to Panther, people who would like to be the most powerful human being in the world stop in for omelets. "Well, John McCain dropped in and had kind of an informal drop-in. And then John Edwards, which has actually been our largest event so far. Joe Biden came in and we filled the restaurant with his supporters. And then Barack Obama dropped in before a speech at the University of Iowa. Those are the ones that we've had so far."

But they'll have more. Panther says the Hamburg's tradition of being a hub of presidential politics started with a 1992 visit from Ronald Reagan. "The secret service came in the week before and told us he might come in, and said that he did like meat loaf so we made sure we had meat loaf on that Saturday and that's what he ordered. Had Dutch apple pie to start with."

Years later, Bill Clinton came by after his presidency. By 2004, candidates sensed that the diner on North Linn Street was the place to be seen. The publicity wasn't a result of political maneuvering by Dave Panther, but he ran with it and his restaurant became a Chuck E. Cheese of the electoral system.

Memorabilia and photos festoon the walls. Pat Buchanan and Howard Dean gaze down upon your meal. And the Burg offers a "Coffee Bean Caucus." After your meal, you get one bean to drop into the jar of your preferred candidate. Since, Iowa City's a college town, Democrats tend to do better. Dennis Kucinich came in second in the '04 Coffee Bean Caucus.

At a recent informal tally, Panther said that Obama, Edwards, and Hillary Clinton are faring well this year and Kucinich still has a good following. On the Republican side, McCain and Mitt Romney have only a few beans, but Ron Paul looks exceptionally strong. "You know the one that's been doing real well is Undecided."

The Hamburg Inn is a microcosm of Iowa itself: A humble place. Nice people. Lots of meat. You can't throw a rock without hitting a candidate. And if you watch closely, you might be able to gauge the status of the candidate based on how they're received here. Liz Sanders manages the Burg. I asked her what it's like when contenders come by.

"Well it depends," she said, "Like, Obama just stopped in on a Sunday morning when of course there's a bunch of people here already and all the heads turned. But when McCain was here, nobody was here. He came during the day, nobody really kind of knew who he was, it was like 'wait, is that ... John McCain?' I don't know."

So Obama was a rock star and McCain was just some guy? "Pretty much", she chuckled.

The candidate visits are great for business. Customers call in advance to ask when specific ones will be appearing. Panther and Sanders sell a lot of pancakes as well as something called pie shakes. But Panther's mission is about more than food: "To keep Iowa number one in the nation for the Iowa caucuses. Because I think if you read the newspapers and stuff you have all these other states that aren't exactly happy about Iowa being number one. And I think Iowa would be a pretty lonely place for politics if we weren't."

More stories from our Election 2008 series


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