Visits from two former presidents and one fictitious one, and a little creative self-promotion, have turned an old fashioned diner on Iowa City’s north side into one of the ritual stops on the caucus campaign trail. And this year the Hamburg Inn’s Coffee Bean Caucus – where diners vote for their favorite candidate by dropping coffee beans into labeled jars – has expanded onto the Internet.
Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther at the Reagan table with some of his mementos, including a two-page photo of Barack Obama's visit last month.
I joined Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther for a cup of that coffee in the Ronald Reagan booth at the Hamburg Inn, and he said Reagan’s August 1992 visit after a speech at the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch was the first big event in the history of the Hamburg Inn as a political stop. A small plaque and a photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan mark the corner booth near the kitchen. Even in heavily Democratic Iowa City, it’s usually full.
The first major campaign appearance was during the 1996 caucus cycle when local supporters of Pat Buchanan brought him to the Hamburg. But it was in 2003 that the Hamburg Inn really cemented its reputation as a must-stop for caucus candidates. That March, former President Bill Clinton visited while in Iowa City for a University lecture. The Clinton table is two booths down from the Reagan table.
The other presidential candidate named Clinton has not yet visited.
“Our goal is to get Hillary here, and Obama back… Of the top six candidates we’ve had three so far – Edwards, Obama and McCain. I’d like to see Rudy Giuliani, and Romney, and McCain again. We’d get them all here if we could.”
“It’s interesting to see whether what’s in TV is what they’re like in person, in a natural setting.”
The Reagan booth also features mementos from the Hamburg Inn's January 2005 West Wing appearance.
The Hamburg Inn was Wesley Clark’s only Iowa campaign event in 2003. In September Clark was in Iowa City for a University lecture scheduled before his late entry into the race, and he subsequently decided not to contest the caucuses. Also visiting in the 2004 cycle were Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Elizabeth Edwards.
Panther premiered the Coffee Bean Caucus in early 2004. “I heard of a Mexican restaurant that had done a poll with pinto beans, and I was thinking about what we could do.” He also liked the alliterative sound of “coffee bean caucus.” The 2004 coffee bean caucus ran from January 7 to 17, ending the Saturday before the January 19 caucuses.
“We got an almost immediate response – I sent out some press releases, a Des Moines TV station picked it up, and from there the national people did and the ball just kept rolling. We even had foreign journalists from the Netherlands and Canada.”
While the first Coffee Bean Caucus was a publicity smash, its track record as a predictor is 0 for 1 –Dean won the beans but John Kerry carried Johnson County and the state on caucus night.
So far this year, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have mentioned their Hamburg Inn visits in their local speeches. “Unfortunately I was out of town when Obama was here,” laments Panther, showing me a two-page photo of the visit in the New Yorker.
Dan Gable and John McCain
McCain’s visit was prominently featured in most coverage of his Johnson County visit earlier this month, in large part because wrestling legend Dan Gable joined him.
Panther says most events are attended by a variety of people and not just strong supporters of a particular candidate. One exception was when director Rob Reiner and actor Martin Sheen visited the Hamburg Inn the week before the 2004 caucuses on behalf of Dean, and Kucinich supporters got wind of the event and packed the place. “I thought that was a little much,” said Panther (an assessment I shared at the time). He still cites the event as one of his favorites, along with a visit by Patch Adams, the real-life doctor who was the basis for the Robin Williams movie. Adams visited on behalf of Kucinich. “Kucinich was very active last time, we haven’t seen that this year.”
The Reiner-Sheen event may have played a key role in winning the Hamburg Inn perhaps its biggest moment of fame, when the restaurant featured on the TV series The West Wing. Panther thinks Sheen, who starred in the series as the fictitious President Bartlet, brought the story of his visit back to the set and the writers worked the Coffee Bean Caucus into the show’s “King Corn” episode, where candidates are encouraged to back ethanol subsidies despite their actual views on the issue.
This year, Panther has added a new twist to the Coffee bean caucus – an on line version at coffeebeancaucus.com.
“I thought that since Johnson County is so Democratic, going on line would give us even more national prominence. We’ll get the actual coffee bean jars closer to fall.”
Online voters answer three questions: home state, party identification, and candidate.
“We’re linked to all the candidates sites on our site, and they can add the link to theirs. The idea is to have fun, but also to have an informed electorate.”
The Hamburg Inn’s roots date back to the 1930s, and the Panther family has operated the North Linn Street location – officially called “Hamburg Inn Number 2,” though Numbers 1 and 3 are long gone – since 1948. Dave Panther bought the business from his parents in 1979. Photos of the famous visitors line the walls, along with pictures of the diner in the 1950s and multicolored chalkboards displaying the menu that includes a dizzying variety of omelets, breakfasts, burgers and malts. Panther recently remodeled the restaurant, adding one additional table without sacrificing the classic look of the anachronistic diner that regularly tops local popularity polls. “We want to look vintage, but not old.”
Howard Dean and Christie and Tom Vilsack are among the many photos on the walls.
Iowa politicians of both parties have made the Hamburg inn a regular stop. Pictures and letters from Senator Chuck Grassley and former congressman Jim Leach hang in the Reagan booth, and Dave Loebsack held events at the Hamburg Inn last year. “Tom Vilsack came here often,” says Panther, noting that Vilsack ended his presidential campaign a week before a scheduled Hamburg Inn event.
Panther says he’s still thinking about who to support in 2008. He was not politically active before his restaurant leaped to caucus fame: “2004 was my first caucus. I thought the process was going to be more complicated. Now I’m getting more involved and more interested. It’s really stimulating.”
“I didn’t realize how much fun politics could be.”