116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Combine one part Norman Rockwell, one part family diner, one part neighborhood coffee shop and one part greasy spoon - in the best sense of the term - and you have Hamburg Inn No. 2.
Mix liberally with politics and you have Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther's greatest marketing strategy.
'I call it the gift that keeps on giving,” Panther says about his efforts to market the downtown eatery his parents bought in 1948 to political candidates and campaigns.
However, a May 18 fire put the restaurant - which has attracted the attention of national media and travel guides and was re-created in an episode of 'The West Wing” - out of commission for its regular customers as well as a campaign venue.
Fortunately for the campaigns, Panther and his employees were able to reopen in August, and the campaigns have returned.
'It's a good thing it didn't happen in the middle of the campaign,” Iowa City Democratic activist Dennis Roseman said. 'It wouldn't be the same.”
The campaigns would have found another venue, 'but this is just such a classic, iconic Iowa City spot” for campaign events, Roseman's wife, Robin, said while enjoying coffee with friends as they waited for U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack to speak at a recent rally.
'Iconic” is a term used frequently to describe the political tradition at the Hamburg Inn. In fact, when Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann had a rally at the nearby Bluebird Diner, social media lit up with criticism of her for not scheduling it at the Hamburg Inn.
'It's fun to be here” during a campaign event, former Iowa House Democratic Leader Dick Myers of Iowa City said over breakfast at the Loebsack rally. 'People enjoy it, whatever their political stripes. It's a good meeting place and a darned good place to eat.”
Myers has been at the Hamburg Inn to see President Bill Clinton, Joe Biden (more than once), former Sen. Harold Hughes, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and a host of state and local candidates. He also drove by when President Ronald Reagan visited.
'We didn't go in for that one,” his wife, Doris, said.
The visits by Reagan and Clinton put the Hamburg Inn on the political map. However, Panther said it was a marketing conference that planted the seed - or coffee bean - for promoting the restaurant as a political venue.
A restaurateur from the Southwest told Panther about conducting a pinto bean poll to attract customers.
'We don't have pinto beans, but we roast our own coffee,” Panther said. The Coffee Bean Caucus was born. Customers vote for their candidates by placing coffee beans in jars by the cash register. Howard Dean won the first Coffee Bean Caucus in 2004. Hillary Clinton topped the Democratic field in 2008, with Mike Huckabee winning the GOP poll.
Campaign events often turn the Hamburg Inn into a noisy, chaotic mosh pit of campaign activists, reporters and television camera crews jostling for space, with waitresses squeezing through the crowd to deliver platters of burgers, pancakes and gravy-smothered omelets to diners.
Panther recalled some events - rallies by John Edwards and Mitt Romney, for example - that have more than filled the restaurant and had to be moved outside because of the crowds.
Panther wasn't political before starting the Coffee Bean Caucus and marketing to campaigns. He pays more attention now. His goal is to provide a neutral meeting ground where all candidates are welcome.
'Whether you agree with them or not, you get to meet them and see how they relate to the public,” Panther said.
He was disappointed by protesters who disrupted a Bachmann visit inside the restaurant.
'Be respectful,” he said. 'We want people to have an opportunity to meet the candidates.”
With that in mind, Panther has started reaching out to potential 2016 presidential candidates.
The Rosemans are confident the candidates will continue to come.
'It's as political tradition to meet at diners,” Dennis Roseman said. 'There's something very American about meeting with local citizens over coffee.”
Panther agrees that the Hamburg Inn offers a friendly atmosphere for candidates.
'It's a small-town, family-owned, apple pie kind of place,” he said.
'It's not like meeting at Starbucks.” Robin Roseman added.