Tommy Koulax, the short-order cook who 46 years ago took a chunk of beef and surrounded it with a generous dollop of his personalized chili and spices to give birth to "Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers," died Wednesday night.
Koulax was 73 and died at his home in Rolling Hills Estates of cancer, said Brent Maire, general manager of the 17 Tommy's stands that dot Southern California.
Born in Oklahoma City to Greek immigrant parents, Koulax came to Southern California in 1928. During World War II he was a shipyard welder. Afterward, he opened a hot dog stand at the intersection of Florence Avenue and Main Street. He lost his lease there but through a newspaper ad found another stand near downtown Los Angeles and in May, 1946, opened the first Original Tommy's at Beverly and Rampart boulevards.
The appeal of meat, cheese, onions, pickles, tomatoes, beans and buns grew modestly at first. But within a few years dozens of customers were circling the block of his ramshackle red and white frame building, waiting for what ranks among the world's messiest culinary concoctions. (In lieu of napkins, paper towels were provided.)
His clientele ranged from movie stars in their Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes to students behind the wheel of Volkswagen beetles.
Eventually demand outstripped supply at the single location and Koulax opened stands in nearby communities.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Koulax quickly found that he was among the most honored of the city's entrepreneurs.
Soon there was a phalanx of "Tammys," "Tonnie's," "Tommies" and just plain "Tom's."
When the judicial dust had settled, Koulax had sued and prevailed over 20 would-be imitators, protecting the "original" and "world famous" portions of his title.
Over the years his service formula never varied: You ordered hamburgers, hot dogs or tamales (french fries were also available at all but the original stand). You paid for those and your drinks at one window and moved to a second one for delivery. Although the massive portions (the hamburger patties weren't even weighed) ran up food costs at all the eateries, Koulax's volume enabled him to turn handsome profits.
Today, the original location alone serves 25,000 burger lovers a week, which translates to 1.3 million patties a year. Unlike many fast-food operations, none of the 17 spots are franchises.
In a lengthy article on Koulax's empire last March, the Los Angeles Business Journal quoted one young lawyer who seemed to typify the widespread appeal of the modest stands:
"This place gives us white-collar yuppies a blue-collar feeling."
Koulax is survived by his wife, Esther, six children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Contributions in his name are asked to the Oncologic Institute at St. Vincent's Medical Center, 2131 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles 90057.