Autographed photos of drag performers are reduced to curling black ash inside Hamburger Mary’s, next to charred tables and spotlights that once focused on the now debris-covered stage after an early-morning Thursday blaze caused widespread damage to the purple and pink restaurant venue at 3333 Beach Blvd.
As rained poured outside around midday Thursday, Hamburger Mary’s Jacksonville co-founder Gary Motes joined family members and some of the restaurant’s 16 staffers to take their first look at the damage, more than a decade after opening the popular spot.
“We have to figure out how to rebuild it, and we are a little upset because there are a lot of memories that went up in the smoke last night,” Motes says, getting emotional. “Me, my brother and my sister, we painted every wall and ran every wire…It’s been a lot of support from Jacksonville, always has, for 13 years. Jacksonville welcomed us from the first day when we opened, even though everybody thought Jacksonville wa too far behind for a Hamburger Mary’s in 2012.”
Hamburger Mary’s is a drag-themed hamburger restaurant chain started in 1972 in San Francisco, with 17 now operating across the country and in Europe. This restaurant is known for its drag shows on its stage next to a statue of a woman carrying a burger, and food items with cheeky names like Queen Mary burgers and Love Me Tenders chicken strips.
The Jacksonville location was featured in a 2016 episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss, as well as Ru Paul’s Drag Race All-Stars on VH1.
Motes says staff and customers had left the restaurant about a half hour before the fire is believed to have started, just after midnight, in the back, across from the kitchen.
“It seemed to be an electrical fire that started in the panel and it just spread quickly through the restaurant,” Motes says. “We were already closed, thank God, at the time, so there were no injuries or anything.”
Posting Facebook alerts about the fire overnight, owners called the fire “devastating to the building,” and the staff who toured the smoke-blackened dining room were visibly shaken on Thursday after taking in the memorabilia on the walls, far from the fire’s origin, that had melted or charred.
Motes, one of the original franchise owners whose daughter Katie now operates it, said he remembers how they all talked about starting the franchise while eating dinner together back in 2012.
“We all said, ‘How much money can you afford to lose?’ and we all wrote it down on a piece of paper, and it was enough money to open the restaurant,” Motes says, emotion in his voice. “And we opened it. The first night, we opened on a show and we turned back 300 people at the door, and we never looked back.”
Standing on the patio, Motes said he doesn’t know how long it will take to clean up, renovate and reopen. But right now, the family is trying to figure out how to help those 16 employees with their lost income.
“We will try to do some small shows on the patio to help our employees,” Motes says. “The family itself will come together, and we are a strong family, and we will be OK. But we are really looking out for our employees.”
Fundraisers are also being considered to help the staff, he says.
Elsewhere in Florida, the chain has been in the news lately for a different reason.
Operators of Orlando’s Hamburger Mary’s filed a legal challenge this year when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new Florida law sponsored by state Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville. The law restricts admitting children to “adult live performances,” which Hamburger Mary’s Orlando operators feared would interfere with what they call their “family friendly” drag shows. Saying the law is unconstitutionally vague, a federal judge has granted an injunction temporarily blocking the law.