Before the sign came down and before any Mediterranean fare had ever been served, the beloved Burger Continental on Lake Ave. started as an idea in the mind of Gene Mays.
By Reina Esparza
Gene’s son, Michael Mays, recalled his father asking his family what toppings they thought would go well on a burger or a hotdog. He had started to experiment with these concepts as well, such as creating a tomato-based hotdog sauce and inventing what would be the Burger Continental burger, which included a quarter pound patty, blue cheese, bacon and red onion.
Gene looked into different locations for his restaurant and finally settled on the spot that many remember on S. Lake Ave. In late 1964, when Michael was in fourth grade, Burger Continental opened to the public.
It wasn’t long before Michael spent his weekends helping out at the restaurant. In addition to cutting french fries and making milkshakes, he went to work beautifying the enticing back patio. He dug holes to plant olive trees throughout the space. Back then, the restaurant used to share a wall with a department store, and he used that wall as the spot to plant cypress trees as well.
The back patio was also enticing due to its gas heaters and jukebox.
The ambience included windows at the front of the place that could be opened to let in the sounds of the street into the dining room. Back then, a flower shop used to be behind the restaurant and the family would allow them to put some flowers and signs in the front windows to attract business.
Sam Funnyjohn, original head cook
In addition to the welcoming atmosphere, the food also kept people coming back. Besides the Burger Continental burger, they also had the “hot plate of the day” which included different specials. There were open faced turkey sandwiches with gravy and French dipped sandwiches that came with au jus. People also came for the apple pie that was made with a brandy sauce and was occasionally ordered with cheese as well.
The one who made these sought-after dishes did not initially have a culinary background. Sam Funnyjohn, the original head cook of Burger Continental, was once an elite Filipino soldier and fighter in World War II.
The restaurant started having good business in 1965, according to Michael, but there were some obstacles that occasionally got in the way. One of which included an ex-employee who burglarized the place and stole some checks as well. The family alerted the police of the missing checks and when the former employee showed up at a nearby bank to cash them, the police were notified immediately.
Despite the good business though, the stress of running the restaurant started to become too much, specifically for Michael’s mother, Dorothy Mays, who took on most of the responsibility of the establishment, being both the cashier and bookkeeper for the family’s new place. She was the only employee that was considered full-time. According to Michael, she was essentially doing the job of a manager.
Once the family realized they wouldn’t be able to afford to hire a manager, they made the tough decision to sell the restaurant. By then, Michael was in sixth grade.
Whether it was to say a quick hello to Funnyjohn or simply to see how the restaurant was being kept by the new owners, Michael visited Burger Continental a handful of times throughout the years.
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