Let’s Hear It For Tommy’s (Burp)
But don’t ever try to copy its original world famous hamburgers or tacky ambience.
March 23, 1992
By CHIP JACOBS
Depending on your sensibilities, the shack may either be culinary landmark or urban landmine, but Southlanders don’t seem to care when its gooey, red-meat fix is at stake.
For decades now at the paint-chipped corner of Beverly and Rampart boulevards, they’ve stood, they’ve scarfed, they’ve belched and they’ve split.
It’s all in the name of a Tommy’s double chilicheeseburger, an outdoor dining experience that incorporates car fumes, cholesterol and seedy characters into gastronomic euphoria that can linger for days.
On a hazy Friday last month, a lunch-time throng of about 75 gathers near the mangy intersection for the ritual of quiet salivation and boisterous jabber. Undergrads, out-of-towners, businessmen and day laborers dutifully queue up around the red-and-white shack as Mercedes-Benzes and gas guzzlers risk their bumpers — and insurance rates — entering the snarled parking lot across the way.
Salsa music, meanwhile, blares out of the back of a patron’s car and the Taco Bell across the street looks forlorn, despite its day-glo sales beckonings. Nearby, a young man is being arrested, though Tommy’s clientele seem more interested in munching than gangland Miranda rights.
Every year, this outpost of L.A.’s great hamburger wars serves enough people to fill the Coliseum and the Sports Arena 10 times over. It’s also a living, breathing sociology treatise paper on taste-bud melting pots.
Snaps one young lawyer, “This place gives us white-collar yuppies a blue-collar feeling.”
Migrating west from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl in 1927 in a model-T Ford, Tommy’s owner and namesake, Tom Koulax, flopped with two hot-dog stands before eventually finding his niche in L.A.’s junk-food constellation. It all started with a $900 investment at the Rampart eatery in 1946.
Today, though neither the empires that Richard McDonald nor Carl Karcher built, it’s claimed itself a piece of the fast-food mother lode
The entrepreneur of Greek descent now has 325 workers at 16 other hamburger joints scattered from El Monte to Long Beach. And his pockets jingle with nearly $20 million in annual sales.
“I’ll give you a good sandwich and not just rip you off,” blurts Koulax, 73. “We even pick up the sales tax.”
If there is any doubt about the triumph that is the chain of Tommy’s Original World Famous Hamburgers, peruse the Yellow Pages and then see the dizzying list of wannabe burger deans.
What a difference a little punctuation makes.
There are Tam’s Burgers, Tom’s Junior Burger, Tom’s Super — and Senior — Burgers, Tomy’s, Thoma’s and Tomein Tommy’s. To name a few.
And they haven’t stopped at just the name. Tommy’s meat-based chili, beefsteak tomatoes and specially cured cheese have all been the stuff of emulation. Even Tommy’s “ambience” — the neon sign, script lettering and industrial paper towel racks — have been copycatted. So have the sofa-cushion-change prices: $1.30 for a regular burger, $2.05 for a double chili-cheese.
But in recent times, Koulax has shown rivals he’s not sincerely flattered by imitation: It’s the quickest path to the court system. Since 1988 alone, Koulax has filed 20 trademark suits and he has yet to lose one. Copy the lettering, name or shack and you’ll get slapped with a suit, Koulax warns.
Hence the marquee at the Rampart set-up, Koulax’s first site: “Tommy’s: Many imitate, none compare.” And use of the key phrase — Tommy’s Original World Famous Hamburgers — is a signal that a local outlet is a true branch of the incomparable original.
The first “imitator” was a something of an insider — a Koulax business associate who began his own “Tommie’s” in West L.A. and the South Bay.
“He was a nickel-and-dimer,” Koulax recalls. “I don’t worry about” rivals now “unless they step on my toes, and then I sue them.”
At Tommy’s iron-gated headquarters on Beverly, there are two inquiries a week about franchising. That’s anathema to Koulax, who prefers branching out at his own leisure.
“What the competition is looking for is a simple, cost-efficient, low-investment thing with a name,” adds Tommy’s General Manager Brent Maire, himself a former Mickey D’s management trainee. “But we just won’t let people copy us. We get customers who call up and complain about the price or the burger and we have to explain it’s not” the real Tommy’s but a competitor.
Tommy’s relies on a recipe of low overhead and fresh ingredients, Maire contends with a dash of pride. And the Rampart shack is a 24-hour operation.
“Our food costs are 38 percent of our overall expenses and that’s high in the food business,” Maire says. “Tom is extremely smart. Others can cut, cut, cut, but he knows customers can taste the difference. . . . We don’t even weigh our burgers.”
At “Tom’s No. 5” in the 5200 block of Pico Boulevard, Koulax wouldn’t seem to have much to fret about. Despite a billing as “The Greatest Chiliburger in the World” and the same accoutrements as Tommy’s — right down to the zesty yellow peppers — the pigeons outnumber the customers. If the cooks are working with the same controlled frenzy as Tommy’s, the bars over the windows conceal it.
Tom’s No. 5 co-owner, Henry Chung, isn’t sure why the old proprietor used a name that is so popular in the L.A. burger game — or even if his name was Tom.
“We don’t think about changing it,” he says.
Back at Rampart, newcomers are astounded they can order, pay and get their goodies in 15 seconds. It’s a down-and-dirty affair: burgers, hot dogs and tamales; potato chips only, no fries; Hostess pies and an honor system where customers snatch canned beverages from an old-fashioned cooler after they order.
But it’s the 1990s. So what about the fiber? Who’s watching the heart disease?
“People ask us how much cholesterol or fat is in our burgers and we tell them we don’t know,” Maire says. “Everyone is concerned about health but what can we say? We sell an old-fashioned chiliburger.”
True enough. Fast-food lite this is not, though Koulax experimented with, and later scrapped, nutrition-oriented chicken sandwiches at the La Habra outlet.
(Koulax opened a sitdown Mexican restaurant, Tomecito’s across from the Rampart stand in the 1970s, but it tanked. Today, the facility is a lime-green storage area.)
As for the customers, they say Koulax’s fare is high living for the palate, if not murder at times on the stomach.
“Someone asked me where I was going to eat,” says one downtown businessman. “And I said, ‘To grab a good lunch and get sick the rest of the weekend.'”
Adds Steve Westling, a visiting police officer from Albany, Oregon: “The food’s great here, especially when you want to prepare for a bowel movement.”
Or take attorney Peter Anderson, a middle-aged customer who has his tie draped over his shoulder to avoid an early run to the dry cleaners.
“I started coming here at 2 a.m. when I was at Loyola law school,” he says between bites. “I’ve been coming here pretty regularly since then . . . when I get the need for a burger fix.”
Indeed, at USC, going a long stretch without a “Tommy’s run” is tantamount to forsaking a football game for lawn bowling.
As it was 40 years ago — when Koulax had to use his car trunk as a storage locker for want of space — the weekends are when the cash registers ka-ching the loudest.
Sometimes, though, the Rampart stand, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, is a little too popular.
Gangs, particularly one called Armenian Power, like to frequent Tommy’s on Friday and Saturday nights, according to Tommy’s security guard Versabey Duque, who sports a billy club at his side. To forestall troublemaking, the parking lots are sometimes roped off and the crowd chemistry is watched closely.
To date, there have been no violent crimes, though the once-proud residential area continues to degenerate into an amalgam of cookie-cutter apartment buildings and graffiti-spattered retail stores.
Does it matter much? Probably not.
Concludes Koulax, “If I had to start over, I couldn’t do it now. But I’ve accomplished what I wanted.”
copyright Los Angeles Business Journal … This story has been slightly edited from its original version.