Little Tavern, Washington's haven for hamburger mavens since 1928, has been sold to an Ohio lawyer who plans such revolutionary additions as fried, eggs and uniforms.
Gerald E. Wedren, a Columbus attorney and investor, purchased Little Tavern Shops Inc. on Jan. 31 for an undisclosed sum from its long-time owners, Harry F. Duncan, 82, founder and chairman of the board; President Robert F. McFadden; and Vice President George P. Mathieson.
Wedren will assume the posts of president and treasurer. The original trio will remain officers of the corporation, with Duncan taking the title of honorary chairman. Apart from one experienced restaurant executive he has hired, Wedren said the corporation would continue to be operated under the same name by existing personne.
Sales of burgers, the chain's piece de resistance, coffee and soup amounted to $4.5 million to $5 million in 1980. Since the corporation is closely held, earnings are not revealed. However, Mathieson said the chain has been "very profitable" over the years.
There are 20 Little Tavern shops in metropolitan Washington and 15 more in greater Baltimore. Many of them sit on prime inner-city real estate that could be sought by developers. Duncan, McFadden and Mathieson own about half the Little Tavern sites, while the others are leased. They plan to lease the ones they own back to Wedren.
Mathieson said the corporation had been approached many times by other chains and restaurants, but the owners always refused to sell. Finally, he added, time -- a reference to their advancing ages -- persuaded them to accept Wedren's offer. This marks the first venture into the fast-food field for the Ohio attorney, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions.
Asked how he could expect to succeed in a market as saturated as the fat its food is fried in, he replied, "Because we have a better product at a lesser price." He added that Little Tavern hamburgers are made with 100 percent, low-fat, fresh beef -- and cost just 45 cents for the small size.
What they do with the raw ingredients is, well, what makes Little Tavern hamburgers distinctive.
Founder Duncan once told an interviewer he likes his "after they've been in the steamer for about 20 minutes." NBC correspondent Douglas Kiker, in a 1979 encomium to Little Tavern, described its mainstay thus: "[It is] a small, gray patty of mysterious mixture that is thoroughly fried, then placed in a hot, moist roll taken from a steamer, squirted with catsup and mustard, adorned with a tissue-thin slice of dill pickle and served on was paper. I realize that doesn't sound like much. . . . It's an acquired taste."
The ambiance, in Kiker's words, was characterized by "the Art Deco chrome and stainless steel that was moderne in the 1920s and '30s; the stacked soup cans with their faded labels; the bracing, reassuring smell of disinfectant, the no-nonsense slogans on the walls that could only have been composed in 1935 by a hard-nosed businessman determined to sell hamburgers."
How can this company continue to operate year after year at a profit, Kiker asked. "The answer is that Washington is filled with Little Tavern freaks. And I am one. It is not easy for me to admit this publicly because -- let's face it -- there is little social cachet attached to being a Little Tavern freak. It is rather like a man admitting that, while a Chivas-and-soda tastes fine, what he really prefers is a shot of Four Roses with a 7-Up on the side."
At the risk of ending a love affair with its freaks, Little Tavern is planning to spruce up its menu and decor. Eggs, sausages, hot dogs, milkshakes and French fries will be added.
The "Club LT" personnel, whom Kiker hailed as having "genuine character," unlike the carbon-copy college-age kids in other burger joints, will be required henceforth to wear uniforms. The familiar green and white slope-roofed structures will get new paint and new signs. Wedren said he hopes eventually to expand the 35 outlets to include other locations.