10 Questions about Hamburger Mary's with owner Gary Motes
1. Tell us about Hamburger Mary's.
Hamburger Mary's was originally an open air bar and grill, founded in 1972 in San Francisco. In those days there was a lot of discrimination against gays and lesbians. Hamburger Mary's welcomed them, figuring money is money, business is business. A lot of people in the gay and lesbian community know that if there's a Hamburger Mary's in their city then it's a place they can feel comfortable at without worrying about being mistreated. There are 12 in America now. We're number 12 and there's a 13th opening by the middle of next year.
The Hamburger Mary's in Jacksonville is owned by me, my brother Larry and my sister Debbie, along with her husband, Randy. We opened on May 1, 2012.
2. What's the overall concept of Hamburger Mary's?
The overall concept is to come in to unite cities. It normally takes about a year but in Jacksonville it's been immediate. Our audience is about 50/50 straight vs gay and lesbian. It's an opportunity for families to come in, have a great meal, and see a really fun show. Our show is always family oriented. We have lots of families who come in with everyone from kids through grandparents. There's no cursing or anything risqué. We do a late show at 11:30 pm on Friday and Saturday. We warn people that these will be more adult oriented, but if there are any children in attendance we tone it right down and make it PG.
3. When did the drag revue become a part of the restaurant?
I'm not sure exactly when it started, it just became an opportunity for the straight community to have a chance to see a revue without having to go to a bar or club - places most families can't go to.
4. What exactly is a drag revue?
A drag revue is a show with female impersonators. We go one step further here in Jacksonville and add a production as the first number. It's a rehearsed production with a drag queen and two of our professional male dancers. This week they're doing Wicked. The week before they did Man Eater. They've also done Hairspray. After the opening production there are 6 performers who come on and do their normal routine which is basically female impersonation.
…are the shows appropriate for families?
Yes, they're family friendly. And we get a lot of families attending. Our 11:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday can be a little more daring, but only if there are no children in the audience. If there's even one child attending then we're PG. And we're serious about this. We bring people from all over the world to perform here and they all sign agreements beforehand that they will not use profanity or engage in inappropriate behavior during the family events. It's a code we strictly enforce. If anyone violates the code they will not be invited back to Hamburger Mary's again. So, it's serious.
5. How long are the shows?
Our shows are Friday and Saturday night at 8 pm, 9:30 pm and 11:30 pm. We also have a Sunday brunch show at 12:30 pm and an evening show at 8:30 pm. The shows are generally about an hour long although our 9:30 pm shows can sometimes run up to 90 minutes.
6. Is there a charge for the shows?
No, not at all. It's dinner entertainment. We don't even insist that people have dinner to watch the show but most people do.
7. Do you need a reservation?
We can seat 196 at tables and 22 at the bar. Reservations are highly recommended during the show times because they're very popular and we've had to turn people away, which we hate to do. I try to keep a few open tables for people who show up without reservations, but even those are limited, so calling ahead is best.
8. Are the impersonation routines scripted or are they improvisational?
We have about 7 different scripted routines that we rotate. The performers come in and rehearse about 6 hours a week for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows.
9. Are the shows something that people return to over and over or are they something that you see once and that's it?
People come back all the time. We're always mixing up the productions and adding new things. We have 6 performers per night. 3 are our Mary's Girls who are with us for the long term. The other 3 are constantly changing and bringing in new material, so there's always something new.
One of our favorite customers is a 70 year old lady who comes almost every Sunday night. Another woman approached me before we'd even opened and said she wanted to reserve a booth for every week. I was skeptical at first, but sure enough, every Friday and Saturday night we have a booth for that customer and her guests.
10. Can you tell us more about the mix of your audience? Are there more women then men?
It's a mix. At the door the women are usually all excited and pumped up. The men, especially if it's their first time here, are not sure what they're getting into and some of them probably wish they were anywhere else. By the end of the night when people see that it's just a really fun show then even the men are all enthusiastic.
11. Are the routines the same across all the Hamburger Mary's?
No, they're different. Because it was a hit with the straight community from the very start in Jacksonville we wanted to offer them something a little different. For a lot of people in Jacksonville the only drag show they've seen is at some of the local clubs and bars and those can get a little trashy. We immediately wanted to invest more money in the shows to improve the production quality. What people are saying across the country is that Hamburger Mary's in Jacksonville is putting the show back into drag.
12. Why was the reception so positive from the very start in Jacksonville?
I think Jacksonville was already right on the edge of diversification anyway and they were just looking for a reason to accept everybody. Two weeks ago I had an 8 year old girl who demanded that her birthday party be here at Hamburger Mary's so that she could watch what she called "the princesses" up on stage.
I know that people were ready for us because we've had this strong, positive reception and we've done virtually no advertising. It's all word of mouth recommendations, or people reading an article about the show and wanting to check it out for themselves. We've even surprised ourselves with the reception. At this point we'll probably be double the attendance from what we expected for the first year.
13. Can you tell us about your food?
Our specialty is our half pound burger, which we charbroil from fresh, never frozen patties. We have really good combinations, like our Buffy, the Burger Slayer. It's marinated for 24 hours in spices and then has a red wine reduction over it, along with garlic aioli and Swiss cheese. For the really hungry we have a Proud Mary, which is a one pound burger. If you finish a Proud Mary and your sides, we'll give you a free deep fried Twinkie dessert or a free shot, and you get to join our Proud Mary Club!
14. Who runs the kitchen?
We have an amazing lady that everyone calls Zee. She has about 35 years of experience in restaurant management. She was our first hire before we even got started. She's a certified chef who owned a few catering businesses before working for us.
15. What can you recommend for someone eating at Hamburger Mary's for the first time?
I'd start with our Mac and Cheese fritters. They're the greatest! We make them in-house and put them on our appetizer menu. We make two big batches of mac and cheese and put them in the freezer overnight. In the morning we scoop it out with an ice cream scoop, bread it lightly, and cook it.
16. What would you recommend to someone who wants to try something a little different?
Our chicken tenders are excellent. We cut them up in-house, marinate them in buttermilk overnight, then batter and cook them. Our chipotle chicken wrap is also really good.
17. What's the most popular item?
The burger, without a doubt.
18. What's your favorite item?
My favorite is the Mary Burger with spicy mustard, lettuce and tomato.
19. Where do you like to eat when you're not eating at Hamburger Mary's?
I shouldn't say, but I really like Kickbacks.
20. What attracted you to Jacksonville?
My brother, sister and I are all from Jacksonville originally. This is home.
21. What drew you to your location on Beach Blvd?
The minimum size for a Hamburger Mary's is 3,000 square feet to accommodate the dining area and the stage. It was hard to find a location in Jacksonville for something that size. We also knew that a lot of the gay and lesbian clubs in the Riverside area were too focused on inward fighting and we didn't want to be distracted by that atmosphere. We support the gay and lesbian community and diversification within Jacksonville but we want to bring a new perspective that is free of the usual politics.
The owner of our current location was very supportive - he loved our whole idea from the start. He thought our concept was something that Jacksonville needed and that we'd help to bring a new vibrancy to the neighborhood. It's no surprise that the St. Nicholas area has not been growing for a long time. We now bring 6,000 or so people into the neighborhood every week. We're starting to see new businesses move here just in the time since we've been open.
22. Did you have any licensing or regulatory issues with the City?
No, none at all. The City wanted to work with us. They were encouraging us to set up downtown, but there was just no property that could work for us.
23. What attracted you to Hamburger Mary's?
Well, I had semi-retired about two years ago and was working part time. A friend took me to Hamburger Mary's in Tampa and I was in love right away. I told my brother that he had to go see it. He was working in Tampa so he went to it and thought "wow!". We then talked my sister into seeing a show and she was hooked. It took us about a year to put the business together but we knew we wanted it from the start.
24. Have you ever owned a restaurant before?
I've worked in the restaurant industry for 38 years, mostly here in Jacksonville. I owned a restaurant in downtown Jacksonville in 1999 for a little while too. My family has also been very involved with Jacksonville for decades so this is a city we know well.
25. What have been some of the biggest surprises running Hamburger Mary's?
One of the odd things, to me, is that the straight community has been so accepting of us but some people in the gay and lesbian community have been less enthusiastic with our presence. That's surprising because one of our motivations has been to create a diverse environment in Jacksonville where people from the gay and lesbian community can come and have fun while being accepted for who they are while feeling comfortable about it. We love straight people but in some ways there's more on offer for gays and lesbians and so it's a bit surprising when some people from that community aren't excited about our success.
…why is that?
I think that some people in the gay and lesbian community in Jacksonville have been brought up thinking that to be comfortable you need to go somewhere that's just gay - whether that's a gay bar or a gay club or anywhere that caters just to gay people. There are places that benefit from having that sort of segregation, and we can be threatening to that idea. We're about diversification and bringing straight and non-straight people together. We aren't about creating a place that's just for gays and lesbians. When you come to Hamburger Mary's you can be gay and still be comfortable sitting next to a family or a straight couple. And vice versa.
26. What have been some of the challenges running Hamburger Mary's?
Probably the same challenges as a lot of small businesses have. We've all worked for big companies but this is the first time we've had to balance the books. We're financing the business out of our own pockets. It's always surprising just how expensive it is to run a business. And that's both a big challenge and a big responsibility. We have up to 45 employees we're responsible for and if we mess it up we put 45 people out of work. It's scary sometimes, but we're having fun. It's like we're running Walt Disney.
27. What's next for you?
We want to stabilize this location and then we'd like to open another Hamburger Mary's in Savannah.
I worked in Savannah for a year and there's only one place for the gay community to go. We want to go there to offer some diversification.
28. Will you look to expand after that?
Our goal is two Hamburger Mary's and one Martini Mary's. The franchise agreement only allows for one Hamburger Mary's per city because it's a destination more than a location. But we can open a Martini Mary's in Jacksonville. We'd really like to have a location in the Riverside area.
29. What's a Martini Mary's?
They don't do a full kitchen but instead focus on appetizers, liquor, beer, martinis, and dancing.
30. Anything else you'd like to add?
Just that we're a small business run by me, my brother, and my sister. We want to have a place where people can come and have a good time. We put a lot into the restaurant and we do it for the fun it brings to people. From the servers getting on the walls and dancing to the YMCA, to the variety of performers we bring - it's all about fun and we want people to come and have a good time. It's an hour show but when you walk out of here your whole attitude will be changed.