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New Hamburg Inn owner has different background, but same vision for Iowa City landmark

Lee takes over from longtime owner Panther Thursday

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IOWA CITY — On Thursday, Dave Panther will relinquish ownership of Hamburg Inn No. 2 — the Iowa City restaurant that’s been in his family for decades — to its new owner.

While Hamburg Inn No. 2’s soon-to-be-owner Michael Lee, a native of China and University of Iowa graduate, brings a very different background to the restaurant than Iowa native Panther, he made it clear he plans to maintain the menu, look and atmosphere that has made the 214 N. Linn St. restaurant into a local icon.

“I love it so much, I don’t want to change anything,” Lee said, sitting Monday in one of the restaurant’s worn wooden booths.

Lee said he had stopped in at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 a few months ago for breakfast and simply fell in love with the place and, when he met Panther, he asked of the possibility of opening a second location in his hometown of Shanghai. That brief conversation was timed perfectly with Panther’s decision to sell the restaurant and eventually led to Lee’s plans to take over ownership.

Lee did say if he wants to change anything at the eatery, it would possibly come in the form of additions such as outdoor sidewalk seating or a patio out back. After that, his ambitions become much more grand, with hopes of adding additional restaurant locations — in places as near as Cedar Rapids and as far as China.

Hamburg Inn No. 2’s quality food and slice of Americana atmosphere has the potential to succeed in many places, Lee added.

Lee graduated from the UI in 1968 with a degree in journalism and is the CEO of Academic Studies Abroad, a Shanghai-based organization that fosters cultural and educational exchanges between the United States and China and Taiwan.

If Lee’s dream of expansion is achieved, it wouldn’t be the first time customers had multiple choices for Hamburg Inns — Panther’s family once operated Hamburg Inn No. 1 on Iowa Avenue and a third restaurant on Center Point Road in Cedar Rapids.

Panther, whose family has owned the Linn Street restaurant since 1948, had announced earlier this year that he was in discussions with a potential buyer for the restaurant.

The restaurant will not close while changing hands, Panther said, and the staff and management of about 30 employees will stay on. He will be involved until the end of the year for help with the transition.

After that, Panther said he hopes to spend more time fishing, writing and with his family.

Panther, 69, said he had been considering selling his restaurant for a few months before meeting Lee, after it became apparent he would not be able to keep Hamburg Inn No. 2 in the Panther family, and said he greatly appreciated the future owner’s dedication to the business.

“I thought that whoever would buy this, it would be silly for them to come in and change it, because if they wanted to change it they could probably start their own restaurant and do whatever they want rather than come in and change a concept that has worked for over 80 years, so that was important,” he said. “Michael had assured me he was interested in Hamburg Inn because it was Hamburg Inn and not coming in here to mess up an icon.”

While known foremost for its food, from the omelets and burgers to the famous pie shakes, Hamburg Inn No. 2 has over the years become arguably one of the biggest political hubs in Iowa City and the state. Since a visit from Ronald Reagan in the early ’90s, politicians, prospective candidates and former presidents have been making stops at Hamburg Inn No. 2.

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