IOWA Magazine | 01-02-2024

Iowa Alums Nate Kaeding, Ben Smart Revive Hamburg Inn

5 minute read
Local restaurateurs lovingly restore the landmark Iowa City diner, which has hosted Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and countless more politicians.
VIDEO: JASON SMITH University of Iowa graduates Nate Kaeding and Ben Smart discuss the reopening of the historic Hamburg Inn in Iowa City's Northside district.

Nate Kaeding and Ben Smart understand how much Hamburg Inn No. 2 means to Iowa City. A Coralville native and former pro football player, Kaeding (04BA, 15MBA) remembers eating at the Burg as a kid and reading the newspaper to learn about presidential candidates stumping there. Similarly, Smart (04BS) grew up just a few blocks away from the restaurant, and the once picky eater turned chef has warm memories of the Hamburg’s comfort food.

Nate Kaeding PHOTO: JOHN EMIGH Former Hawkeye and NFL star Nate Kaeding now leads Gold Cap Hospitality, an Iowa City restaurant group.

So, when the 75-year-old Iowa City landmark and popular campaign trail stop closed its doors earlier this year, the two University of Iowa alumnus agreed that something needed to be done. Their restaurant group purchased the Hamburg this past summer and quickly set to work restoring the cozy North Linn Street eatery that once hosted visits by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

By UI homecoming weekend in October, the Hamburg was once again serving its presidential breakfast, hand-cut tenderloins, and signature pie shakes. The restaurant’s reopening also meant the return of the Coffee Bean Caucus—a tradition in which patrons drop coffee beans into mason jars on the front counter to support their preferred political candidates.

Dave Panther and Former President Bill Clinton PHOTO COURTESY HAMBURG INN Former Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther is pictured with former President Bill Clinton during a visit to the diner.

Kaeding, a former Hawkeye and NFL star who returned to Iowa City to earn an MBA and raise a family, leads Gold Cap Hospitality, a restaurant collective that also owns and operates Pullman Bar & Diner and St. Burch Tavern. He’s also a partner in several other Iowa City-area restaurants and director of business development at Build to Suit, a Coralville-based construction and real estate development firm. Kaeding guides the concepting phase for Gold Cap restaurants—defining their identity and customer experience before launch. With the Hamburg, however, that character was already deeply ingrained.

“The Hamburg has a soul to it,” says Kaeding. “The hope, aim, and ambition when you create something like this is you want it to be a place where people are coming back as alumni 30 years from now and saying, ‘Hey, that’s where I had my first date, or that’s where I celebrated an A on my midterm.’ The Hamburg has already been that for people, so our goal is to steward that and enhance it into the future.”

“The Hamburg has a soul to it.” —Nate Kaeding
Hamburg Inn today PHOTO: JOSEPH CRESS/THINK IOWA CITY After extensive renovations, the Hamburg Inn reopened this past fall on North Linn Street in Iowa City, where it's been a fixture for 75 years.

Smart studied geoscience at Iowa but ultimately channeled the work ethic and drive he developed as a college student into his passion for cooking. He enrolled in culinary school at Kirkwood Community College after earning a UI degree, then moved to the Seattle area, where he was sous chef at the five-diamond restaurant Herbfarm. After six years in the Pacific Northwest, he returned to Iowa to help open Big Grove Brewery, which now has restaurants in Solon, Iowa City, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids.

Ben Smart PHOTO: JOHN EMIGH Chef and restaurateur Ben Smart grew up a few blocks away from the Hamburg Inn, where he is now co-owner.

The Hamburg is the ninth Iowa restaurant for which Smart is part of the ownership team. Unlike the chef-driven menus he’s developed at other restaurants, Smart says he wanted to preserve the Hamburg’s hearty diner dishes like biscuits and gravy as well as offer some new, lighter options. When he talked with Iowa Citians about reopening the Hamburg, Smart says he was often asked a single question: “You’re not going to make it fancy, are you?” That, of course, was the last thing he wanted.

“The whole idea was to preserve the Hamburg that we knew and loved growing up,” Smart says. “And, so, it was about taking the essence of what that menu was—it’s a greasy spoon diner. It’s going to have really good eggs your way, omelets, all those kinds of things. I keep using the word ‘honest.’ It’s just perfectly honest food that’s well-prepared with simple ingredients. We’re not trying to put any bells and whistles on it.”

Smart and Kaeding also aimed to preserve the Hamburg’s timeless charm. That meant studying old photo albums to meticulously recreate the décor from the diner’s heyday and consulting with longtime owner Dave Panther, whose family opened the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in 1948. (Hamburg Inn No. 1 on Iowa Avenue opened in 1935 and closed in 1978.)

Hamburg Inn in 1948 PHOTO COURTESY HAMBURG INN Since opening in 1948, the Hamburg Inn has hosted generations of University of Iowa students, Iowa Citians, and political hopefuls.

Today, patrons are greeted by the familiar mosaic-tiled floor, lunch counter, wood-paneled walls, and framed photos detailing decades of visits by politicians and the Hamburg’s cameo in a 2005 episode of The West Wing. Kaeding even enlisted friend and artist Jamie Boling (02MA, 02MFA) to replicate the hand-painted window signage from the 1980s.

Channeling lessons from his MBA work at the Tippie College of Business, Kaeding calls the Hamburg Inn project a “double bottom line.” It’s not just a business venture, but an investment in a city he loves. “I feel like there’s a greater purpose to what we’re trying to do,” he says, “which is create the greatest college town in America.”

It’s hard to imagine an Iowa City without the Burg. Thanks to Kaeding and Smart, we don’t have to.

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