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Beef Closes Old Burger Joint

A landlord-tenant dispute leads to closure of Jay's, known for egg-topped patties. It escaped a similar pickle in 2000 but no one has come to the rescue this time.

March 05, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It's enough to give you a Jayburger heartburn, what with two families feuding over greasy beef patties smothered by even greasier fried eggs.

Customers of Jay's, the popular east Hollywood burger stand, saved it from destruction five years ago and are now watching in dismay as it is again threatened with demolition.

A rent increase in 2000 prompted burger maker Lionel "Jay" Coffin to close and begin dismantling the steel-sided stand until fans of the egg-topped Jayburger stepped in and bought the business in an effort to preserve their beloved sandwich.

Many double-burgers and one lawsuit later, the 58-year-old sandwich counter at Santa Monica Boulevard and Virgil Avenue has been shut down once more and seems on the verge of being swallowed up by a mini-mall development.

Fans lament that this is an inglorious end to a colorful stand that has been featured in movies, TV shows and magazines and has served generations of equally colorful Hollywood characters and after-hours clubbers.

"This place has been here since my dad was a little boy," said Alex Garcia, 12, who stopped at the stand to read the sign announcing its closure. It was below another sign that still listed Jayburgers at $2.80 for a single, $3.75 for a double and $4.70 for a triple. A double burger topped with fried eggs and bacon was listed for $5.09.

"That's my favorite," Alex said of the fried egg-double burger. "It's heaven."

The current fight is over storage space that Coffin's daughter JayAnn Rodgers Rojas says she needs in order to operate the 300-square-foot walk-up eatery.

Coffin bought the burger stand in 1968 after operating a similar sandwich shop for a dozen years near Los Angeles City College. With its fried egg-and-burger special, the funky red outdoor eatery quickly became a local favorite for Hollywood, Los Feliz and Silver Lake residents.

But Coffin's rent was bumped from $2,000 a month to $5,000 in 2000 when a couple purchased the corner lot surrounding the stand. Angry, the then-82-year-old Coffin unplugged his griddle and began removing the stand.

Customers began a petition campaign to save it. Two of them, Michael Leko and Dana Hollister, decided to buy the stand for $50,000, pay the higher rent and continue operating it as Jay's Jayburgers.

Leko was soon running the stand, using Coffin's old chili and Jayburger patty-and-fried egg recipes.

"I gave him $10,000 and put close to $60,000 in it in floor drains and upgrades. After a year, Jay took ill and his family sued me to get the stand back," said Leko, who now runs the Eat Well coffee shop in Silver Lake.

"I probably could have won. I let it go. I didn't want to hurt the family," Leko said.

Rojas reassumed ownership of the burger stand structure and resumed renting the street-corner site from landowners Mary and Paul Lee. Rojas said she was forced to close it Feb. 1, when the Lees ordered the stand's storage container removed.

But the Lees contend that they own the burger stand because it is permanently bolted to a concrete foundation. And they assert they've gone to great lengths to preserve Rojas' burger business and to allow for storage space while upgrading the property around it.

Last month the Lees began developing a mini-mall behind the burger stand. To make room for construction, the stand's customer parking area was eliminated and a storage area used for Jay's Jayburger supplies was demolished.

Rojas said that after the Lees ordered her to remove the stand's temporary storage bin she was forced to lay off her six employees and close the business. A short time later, a fence went up around the construction site, sealing off the burger joint.

"I've been forced out. They're holding my building hostage. It's insane," Rojas said.

"At the very least I wanted to get my belongings out. I still have perishable product in there that vendors were willing to buy back from me. I can't even shut off the electricity because I don't want food to rot in the refrigerators."

Rojas said her intention is to sell the stand's equipment and remove the structure. "My dad said if they give you trouble, get the stand out of there," she said.

The Lees say they did not force the closure of Jay's Jayburgers.

"We're not holding anything hostage," said their daughter, Cindy Lee Whitmore. "The things inside that are not fixtures I told her she can have."

But the burger stand itself is her family's property, said Whitmore, an attorney who lives in La Canada Flintridge.

"I've told her in no uncertain terms that the burger stand is a fixture to the land. We're of the understanding we own it. In terms of demolition, I told her as owners we'd consider it trespassing."

Whitmore said Rojas was asked to rent a smaller storage container because the large one she was using got in the way of construction workers.

"The storage thing she had was bigger than the burger stand. I said, 'Can you get something a quarter the size?' She said no.

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