Phil Moon told me Hamburger Mary’s will open in two weeks, but when I arrive the windows are still plastered with cardboard and caution tape.
Inside, a five-foot-tall stack of leather diner booth cushions blocks the view to the bar, where only a line of gleaming beer taps jut from coarse brown paper and painter’s tape.
Moon, the owner, is standing over the wooden skeleton of a booth, gripping a power drill. His blue bomber jacket and shoes are spackled with white paint.
“I’ll show you around,” he says, insisting he only has five minutes before he has to get on with his schedule.
Moon is a legendary bar developer in Vancouver’s gay village, opening Numbers back in 1980, as well as the former Oasis lounge, the Luv Affair in what is now Yaletown, and taking a hand in the Fountainhead Pub. In late 2014, he picked up Hamburger Mary’s, an iconic diner with 37 years of history in Vancouver’s gay community, intent on saving the business from transforming into “another sushi bar.”
“I only bought this for the community because I wanted to save this corner,” he tells me. “I shouldn’t even be doing this at 78 years old. I only did it for the street.”
“The city should be sued for not shutting it down five years ago,” he continues darkly. “I have pictures of what it looked like before.”
Moon shut down Hamburger Mary’s for renovations in March 2015, four months after he bought it. His staff complained he gave them only a week’s notice, never said if their jobs would return and denied them severance pay. At the time, Moon told me the bar would reopen in two months, that all his staff would have jobs, and that he didn’t have to pay severance for a temporary closure.
A year later — Moon says city bureaucracy held up the renovations — I ask him if he’ll be hiring his staff back.
“Maybe some of them,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Moon wanders towards the back of the restaurant, patting the bar and the ice machine as he passes, like new friends.
“If anything looks like before, it shouldn’t be in here,” he says. “I just spent $1.4 million on this place. Everything is new, from the floors, the roof, the plumbing, you name it. Not even one screw is left here.”
As I follow Moon into the kitchen, a painter in splattered overalls brushes past — “Alright boss, you don’t need me here for seven days, right?”
“I dunno,” says Moon. He keeps walking, past the gleaming metal of the dishwasher to the fryer.
“Everything’s on wheels,” Moon says. “Two hot water heaters, so if one blows we won’t have to shut down. Best fryer you can buy in the world — 45,000 bucks.”
Gesturing like a conductor, he shows me how the fryer moves to make fish and chips. He says he will reopen with the same menu as a year ago, but with better food, and a chef he trusts.
“We’ll use top quality food, not just picked off the street or something,” he says.
Before I came to visit Hamburger Mary’s, I got in touch with Justin Meisner, who served tables here for five years before Moon took over. Meisner says he ended up getting a cheque for $300, less than a week’s pay. After five years, labour regulations suggest he was owed five weeks of severance.
“After that I was so fed up that I just didn’t want to bother with it anymore,” he says. He never filed an objection, and the deadline to do so has passed.
Standing beside the bar, I ask Moon about his old staff.
“They got everything that they had coming to them. It wasn’t up to me to pay severance for the old owner. Would you pay 10 years severance if you just bought it? I didn’t have to start it. I could have just let it close.”
I tell Moon that I’ll look into how severance is supposed to work when a business changes hands. Later, when I call the Ministry of Labour, I am told that Moon would have had to fire and rehire his employees if he wanted to be free of severance obligations. He did not.
“Why don’t you go look into it,” Moon says. “I thought you were coming to look at the place.”
“I am looking at the place,” I say.
“Well, why don’t you use the door and fuck off,” Moon says.
For a moment, a look of puzzlement crosses his face, as if he’s surprised by what he said, and then he stares passively past me at the cardboarded windows. I pick up my camera case and leave.
Moon says Hamburger Mary’s will open for business in April.