Novice restaurateur sets the stage for a revival of Hamburger Hamlet brand

Novice restaurateur sets the stage for a revival of Hamburger Hamlet brand

It isn’t easy to recreate a 57-year-old brand, but Hamburger Hamlet, the thespian-theme upscale burger chain, is almost ready for its closeup. It has been three years since Andrew Tavakoli bought Hamburger Hamlet for $10 million. At the time, the then-12-unit chain was part of the holdings of bankrupt Prandium Inc., which was also parent at one point of the Chi-Chi’s Mexican dinnerhouse brand and rotisserie chicken concept Koo Koo Roo.

Tavakoli, a businessman with no experience in foodservice, says he has loved the Hamburger Hamlet brand since he was a college student at UCLA. His goal is to bring the iconic brand back to its glory days when it was founded by actor Harry Lewis and his wife in 1950 on the Sunset Strip.

The past three years have been spent “digging trenches and laying the pipes and foundation,” says Greg Hernandez, a 13-year veteran of the Ruby’s Diner chain who Tavakoli named executive vice president of operations for what is now called the Hamlet Restaurant Group, based in Los Angeles. The first step was to close three underperforming units in Southern California as well as the one-off Porter’s restaurant in Alexandria, Va., which was also part of the system. Tavakoli then hired consultants, developed a new prototype and began renovating units to update the design.

All eight restaurants should have the new look by midsummer, Hernandez says. The new Hamlets will have a wine bar area serving cocktails, as well as a more clubby “tap room” with red leather booths, and a bright patio with a fireplace.

“We’re trying to get away from the chain-restaurant feel and get into an atmosphere of more of a group of neighborhood restaurants,” Hernandez said.

The menu is in the process of an overhaul, with new dishes being offered as specials to see what works. Guests can choose from a list of trendy cocktails and an expanded selection of wines. While some traditional favorites will stay the same, such as the brand’s beloved lobster bisque, more contemporary items will be added, such as Asian pot stickers and spice-crusted ahi tuna.

Even the burgers are getting a makeover, with the option of turkey, beef or a veggie patty. Toppings might include cilantro pesto or ancho chile mayonnaise with pico de gallo.

With an average ticket of about $14.25, the average unit volume is now at $2.8 million, Hernandez said, but the group hopes to see that increase about 7 percent this year following the upgrade.

Perhaps most important is the fact that the chain is no longer to be Hamburger Hamlet. The name of each unit changed earlier this year to reflect its location. The original is now called Hamlet on Sunset, for example. Hernandez said the company now is looking at franchising the brand domestically and overseas.

“Time will tell whether we made the right decisions,” he said. “But we’ve certainly made some bold decisions.”