Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Two weeks ago, the owner of Jay’s Jayburgers thought he had a big problem when his supplier stopped carrying the large size of a strawberry jam he had served for breakfast the past 32 years.

But Jay Coffin soon had a more pressing crisis. On March 8, the 82-year-old owner of one of L.A.’s most beloved burger stands was told the rent on his tiny property would hit the roof, going up from $2,000 to $5,000 a month. He says he cannot afford it, and will close on March 31.

It will be the end of an era: Coffin came to Hollywood in 1946 from Michigan and learned the hamburger business from Tommy Koulax of World Famous Tommy Burgers fame. In 1956, Coffin opened his own stand, across from Los Angeles City College, and in 1968 moved a few blocks away to his present location, on Santa Monica Boulevard and North Virgil Avenue. The tiny structure was built sometime in the early ’30s, with the patio added in 1939. The combined experience of Coffin and his employees adds up to 150 years of hamburger expertise; for cook Santos Pineda, it was the first job he landed in the United States when he arrived from his native Nicaragua 12 years ago. Cook “Smitty” has been with Jay more than 32 years.

The food and service of the charming stand inspire rabid devotion. It is reminiscent of the little diner where Veronica Lake ordered up ham and eggs in the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels. Among a recent weekend’s patrons were a couple who make the drive from Pomona once a month to eat at Jay’s; another man, Laron Williams, takes the bus from South-Central, even though the stands in his neighborhood are less expensive.

Like many restaurant owners, Jay was on a month-to-month rental agreement. Coffin’s original lease, with the Morgan family, expired in 1983. In 1987, the land was purchased by David Tseng, who did not renew the lease and tried to evict Coffin. Tseng changed his mind because of the unique ground lease Coffin holds. Coffin owns the actual structure of Jay’s Jayburgers, and his old lease featured an addendum: If Coffin were to vacate the property, he was to raze the structure and re-pave where it stood. Because Santa Monica Boulevard is eventually slated for widening, any other future building could not be located so close to the street. Tseng chose to let Coffin stay. In October 1999, Tseng sold the property to Mary and Paul Lee. Neither Tseng nor Mary or Paul Lee was available for comment.

The Lees have operated the 7-Eleven across Santa Monica Boulevard from the site for just under a year. A son of the owners, Tom Lee, insists he does not want to see Jay’s razed, but says that a rent increase is justifiable because of the little stand’s volume of sales. Jay’s is open 24 hours on the weekend and does a thriving business. Tom Lee said he told Coffin at their March 8 meeting that he would pay Coffin for any improvements Coffin made to the site, and take over operation of the stand, leaving things as they were if Coffin was unable to pay the rent. “I even told him I would leave his picture up,” said Lee. Coffin is adamant that he will raze the structure instead, per terms of his original lease.

“There are many people interested in operating the stand,” said Lee. “I turned down a huge offer from Carl’s Jr., who wanted to tear the building down. I thought that was the wrong thing to do. If Coffin wants to level the stand, that’s how it goes. It’s a free-enterprise society, and it’s none of anyone’s business.”

In a letter dated February 9, landowners Mary and Paul Lee served Coffin with a 30-day notice to evict, citing the “inability to come up with a lease agreement.” Coffin disputes that statement, saying he had attempted many times to discuss the matter with the Lees, but that phone messages and in-person attempts to discuss the matter were in vain. Coffin says the $3,000 increase is unfair: “I would have to sell $20,000 worth of hamburgers a month to make that kind of rent.”

Netty’s Restaurant owner Netty Carr has been eating at Jay’s since 1970. A fervent admirer of the small-business owner, Carr has spearheaded a petition drive to draw attention to Coffin’s plight, and plans a demonstration in conjunction with the L.A. Conservancy at the 7-Eleven on March 25 from noon to 3 p.m. Los Angeles City College student Lisa LeFeevre spontaneously started collecting signatures last Friday night. In two hours, 162 people signed the petition, asking for the chance for the business owner to say goodbye gracefully. Bob Aldrich, a customer for more than 20 years, says that what is happening to Jay’s is the story of greed. “It’s a pleasure to eat here. The service is impeccable — there’s not better service in Beverly Hills, and this is a hamburger stand!”

Coffin and his six employees are bearing the sudden change with a stoic grace, though Coffin admits it’s rough going. Sadness creeps into his voice as he goes over the finer points of breaking down the restaurant: “It’s a shame. In April, it would have been 44 years I’ve been serving hamburgers. Jay’s is a good product with a good following, and to have it end this way is really sad.”

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