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From South LA to Stardom: The History of Fatburger

This video and article was made in collaboration with Javier from Califoniography.

At the southwest corner of Western Avenue and Thirty-First Street, sits a four-story apartment complex with an external yet cloistered structure. If you glance once, you might miss it. But if you inspect closely at the corner, you’ll find a small feature that vaguely pays tribute to the first Fatburger, a Los Angeles fast food institution. 

In fact, this is the original location of the first Fatburger ever.
The story of Fatburger is a windy, inspirational tale that highlights Black entrepreneurship in South Los Angeles throughout the mid-to-late 20th century. And it begins with the exemplary Black entrepreneur Lovie Yancey.

Lovie Yancey

Mr. Fatburger

In 1947, Lovie Yancey opened a burger stand called Mr. Fatburger with her partner Charles “Suitcase” Simpson.Yancey, according to FatBurger’s oral history, made delicious hamburgers in her home kitchen, and Simpson had a knack for businesses and building. As a construction worker by day,  Simpson used leftover materials from his job, and with the help of his coworkers, built a three-stool, walk-up burger stand after work hours. They called it “Mr. Fatburger,” because Yancey thought the name was the perfect description for her big, made-to-order, and customizable burgers  that were the epitome of the jazz slang word “fat,” which didn’t just describe something as large—but also deluxe. 

In those first few years, Lovie and an assistant would work the daytime shift while Charles and his sister took over the night shift after a day of working his construction job. In fact, Yancey worked as many as 18 hours during the first decade of Mr. Fatburger

Assumed to be Charles Simpson and Lovie Yancey. Photo Via

According to the West Adams Heritage Association, the hamburger stand started with daytime business hours, but expanded to a 24-hour operation to capitalize on a revolving door of employees who worked day-and-night shifts at nearby manufacturing sites amid a booming post-war economy. The Western Avenue location of the original Fatburger sat at the edge of budding Black neighborhoods Jefferson Park, West Adams, and Leimert Park, standing in proximity to high-profile jazz clubs, including Club Oasis, California Club, and the Tiki room. 

Despite the rampant success of Mr. Fatburger, Yancey and Simpson dissolved their relationship and Yancey bought Simpson’s stake in the original stand on Western Avenue in 1952. After the separation, Yancey dropped “Mr.” from “Fatburger,” and set out to operate it independently.

Yacey’s Fatburger Expansion

Yancey continued to find success with the original location; her humble, welcoming stand stood in contrast to other establishments in L.A. in a racially-segregated era of Los Angeles. She continued to operate it 24 hours, seven days a week, and expanded the footprint of the original stand to accommodate demand. Throughout the 50s and early 60s, Fatburger gained notoriety when Black entertainers Ray Charles, James Brown, and Red Foxx stood among her customers. 

Wanting to expand her Fatburger’s footprint in LA, Lovie found a former hot dog stand near the corner of Burton Way and La Cienega Boulevard near Beverly Hills and opened her second location in 1973. Now being closer to the homes of her celebrity clients, it wasn’t unusual to see the parking lot filled with limos or to see Johnny Carson or Elizabeth Taylor grabbing a Fatburger after an award show–though only being able to seat about 12 customers.. 
Yancey started selling franchises of “The Last Great Hamburger Stand” in 1981 and, according to the International Directory of Company Histories, by 1985 there were 32 locations total, 4 of which were company owned and Fatburger was named number 5 fastest growing burger franchise by Entrepreneur magazine. 

“I don’t worry about McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s” Yancey said during an interview with The Wave newspaper in 1985. “They may be more popular, but a good burger sells itself, and I don’t think anybody makes a good a hamburger as we do.” 

The Fatburger Corporation

Those good hamburgers soon attracted an investment group, led by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, that bought Fatburger from Lovie Yancey in 1990 and formed the Fatburger Corporation. Yancey retained ownership of the original stand and the La Cienega Boulevard location, which her daughter, Gwen Adair, ran for several years. As far as tenacity, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Apart from being a restaurateur, Adair was also an actress—she was a regular on M.A.S.H. and the first female boxing referee to arbitrate a world title fight. 

The newly formed Fatburger Corporation focused on expanding and opened locations shortly after in Las Vegas and by the end of 1997 had 29 locations with an ambitious plan of growing to 250 locations within 5 years. But, that zealous expansion didn’t materialize and Fatburger came close to being purchased by Restaurant Teams International in 1999. However, that sale was still not complete a year later, so in October 2001, Lakers great Magic Johnson in partnership with GE Capital Franchise Finances bought the franchise with a more modest expansion plan. 

The investors planned to have 100 new locations, with 80 percent of them being franchises, within the next 5 years in markets where Johnson’s Development Corporation already had an established presence in New York, Colorado, Texas, and Georgia. Magic’s involvement drew a great interest in the chain, but his time with the company was short-lived, as he sold the majority of his interest in the chain in 2003; this was mainly due to the slow rollout of their expansion, with only three new restaurants added during Magic’s tenure. Around this time, the original Fatburger stand on Western Avenue shutterred, but was retained by Yancey’s daughter, Adair.

Fog Cutter Capital Group provided an investment group, led by president Keith Warlick, the financing needed to acquire a controlling interest in 2003. Warlick led the campaign to take the company national and opened stores in Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Louisiana, and New Jersey by 2004 and continued to grow, taking the brand international by opening the 1st franchise in Canada in 2005 and opening the first location inside a sports stadium in 2008. 

Saving the Original Fatburger Stand

In the early 2000s, Adair listed the original Fatburger site for sale, a total of 35,375 square feet, for $4.3 million. Evanisko Realty & Investment Inc, the broker representing Adair, pushed to sell the property to a real estate developer because of the site’s proximity to LA Metro’s planned light rail station at Exposition Boulevard. Because the site was never designated as a historic landmark, the original burger stand had no refuge against demolition. The Los Angeles Conservancy in 2005 reached out to the Fatburger Corporation to purchase the property, but the corporation wasn’t interested, and did not believe Fatburger would perform well in the neighborhood–but a residential site would help Yancey’s family maximize their profits from the sale.
In 2009, Evanisko announced the dilapidated Fatburger sold in the summer of 2009 for $3 million, under the condition that the original Fatburger stand would be rehabilitated and incorporated into the development. Mercy Housing, the developer that bought the property, planned a four-story, 61-unit, low-income apartment on the former Fatburger site. The developers physically moved the former hamburger stand from the middle of the property to the southwest corner of the lot during its early construction phases, rehabilitating the exterior in the process. The housing development opened in 2014, unveiling the compromise of the sale. Today, the Jefferson Park Terrace towers over Western Avenue, and a vague representation of the former Fatburger shack is shoehorned in its shadow—and an even smaller plaque recognizes Yancey’s incredible impact in South Los Angeles and the greater Los Angeles’ burger culture.   

The Jefferson Terrace Apartments now sit at the former site of the original Fatburger. The first hamburger stand has been “rehabilitated,” and moved to the Southwest corner of the property. Inside, the stand is barren. | The South LA Recap

Yancey died in 2008, one year before the sale was finalized, at the age of 96. Her legacy went beyond her Fatburger Restaurants though. In 1986 after losing her grandson to sickle cell anemia, she created a $1.7 million dollar endowment at City of Hope hospital in his honor. The chain has also been name-checked in rap songs like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Going Back to Cali” and Ice Cube’s “It was a Good Day.” 

Fatburger is currently owned by FAT Brands, which has rapidly expanded its footprint, but despite now having over 180 locations around the world, it’s still very much an LA institution. Of the 54 locations in California, over 20 of them can be found in and around the LA area. So the next time you’re sitting down enjoying some “Fat Fries” or trying to get your picture on the wall by taking on the XXX Challenge, make sure to pay your respects to Lovie Yancey, who deserves a place among the legends of fast food restaurants that originated in Southern California.  

Javier and I risked our health to take part in Fatburger’s XXX Challenge. We emerged victorious and regret nothing.

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