Before Henry Meyer became Hamburger Henry, he grew up in Germany, the son of a Jewish merchant who thought Adolf Hitler was a fad.
"I remember distinctly the day Hitler came to power," the 60-year-old Meyer 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" at age 22, he said.
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 often works 12-hour days. The extra effort has made Meyer a multimillionaire.
He now owns two Hamburger Henrys, a fast-food chicken restaurant, a bakery, various parcels of real estate, and is a major stockholder and board chairman of International City Bank in Long Beach.
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."