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Henry Meyer Isn't Satisfied With Just Building a Better Burger

January 02, 1986|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Before Henry Meyer became Hamburger Henry, he grew up in Germany the son of a Jewish merchant who thought Adolph Hitler was a fad.

"I remember distinctly the day Hitler came to power," Meyer, now 60, recalled recently. "I came home with a bloody nose from school, and I asked my father, 'What is this all about?' "

"He said, 'Don't worry, it won't last.' "

By the time Meyer arrived in this country 14 years later, in 1947, he had fled from Germany to China with his family and survived three years of wartime internment in a crowded, Japanese-run camp near Shanghai.

"I had $10 in my pocket when I got to San Francisco," said Meyer, who, as the eldest son, was chosen to emigrate to America--and to succeed.

"I'd worked for some very fine Swiss hotel managers in the Orient, so I applied for a job in a hotel" when he was 22, Meyer said. "They wanted me to give out keys and stick carnations in people's lapels. I told them I wanted to be a hotel manager."

By 1951, four years after entering the country, he was manager of the fashionable Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara.

In 1965, after a partnership in a Santa Monica restaurant and a five-year stint as manager of the Elks Lodge in Long Beach, he opened his first Hamburger Henry, a fancy Belmont Shore hamburger stand with which he built a fortune.

"I asked a kid on the street, 'What food would you want if you could have anything?' The kid said, 'A hamburger, Coke and french fries.'

"So I figured if I could build a better hamburger, there would be good business. And I wanted to be different, so I took all the gourmet items I'd learned about and incorporated them into my menu. It was kind of like taking Gucci to Sears Roebuck, and it has done very well."

Still lean and aggressive, Meyer, who is divorced and has four grown children, often works a 12-hour day and lives for the success that hard work brings.

"I usually come home at night and turn my briefcase upside down and clear it out and get ready for the next day," said Meyer, arching an eyebrow for emphasis.

The extra effort has made Meyer a multimillionaire, at least on paper, and earned him an honored position among Long Beach's businessmen.

President of the Chamber of Commerce in 1982 and current president of the local Rotary Club, he owns two Hamburger Henrys, a fast-food chicken restaurant, a bakery, various pieces of real estate, and is a major stockholder and board chairman of the fast-growing International City Bank, based in Long Beach.

Despite his devotion to work, Meyer is not one-dimensional, said Chris Pook, chamber president. Meyer, said Pook, is an extraordinary community leader partly "because of his brightness and his ability to use his wit to get points across."

Meyer, however, has been the center of some controversy since 1983, when he and others "thought the chamber should have a political arm" and formed the Long Beach Political Action Committee.

The PAC, which Meyer chairs, expects to contribute $50,000 to $100,000 in five City Council races during the next six months, Meyer said. (A $1,000 donation is large for such races in Long Beach.)

"The way it was, the City Council handed us rules, and we reacted," he said. "Business is always considered as being bad, and I just wanted to get the feeling across that if it wasn't for business we wouldn't have anything."

In 1984, in the first test of the PAC's influence, incumbent Councilman Wallace Edgerton, a rent-control advocate, trounced PAC-backed real estate agent Ed Deal.

And the PAC already has drawn fire this campaign season from Councilman Warren Harwood, who claims the group is trying to recruit a candidate to run against him.

"Henry Meyer makes very good hamburgers," said Harwood. "But the PAC is a facade behind which people who have political axes to grind operate. It provides them with a device for laundering money to individual candidates while obscuring the identity of individual contributors."

The PAC, Meyer responded, has recruited no one and has refrained from endorsing any candidate through the close of the filing period last Monday. The chamber, however, has been wary of such controversy and recently stopped collecting funds for the PAC, severing its last formal tie with the committee.

Tall and distinguished, Meyer himself has been touted as a possible council candidate.

In 1982, when he spent $6,000 to host a formal party to introduce 200 civic leaders and politicians to three new "gourmet hamburger creations," many were convinced the tuxedos and limousines also were intended to promote candidate Meyer.

The idea of running is intriguing, Meyer said, because "a councilman in Long Beach has greater influence on my business than does the President of the United States."

But Meyer remains primarily a businessman, looking for new ways to make money and educate himself.

For example, as chairman of the board of International City Bank since its founding in early 1984, he has become an astute amateur banker, said Charles H. Shedd, who resigned the bank presidency three weeks ago and moved to San Diego.

"I've got to give him a lot of credit," Shedd said. "He put in a lot of effort, trying to understand how the business worked. He was tough to work for, but I found him very fair and equitable."

Meyer said he tells his employees "if you don't want to work, check out and go home."

"I believe," Meyer added, "if you work 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch, you're never going to get ahead."

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