Over its 63 years in business, Big Jo’s has earned its place in the pantheon of Santa Monica burger joints. Serving up staples like bacon cheeseburgers, egg salad sandwiches and crinkle cut fries, the basic, no-nonsense menu and reliable service drew generations of Santa Monicans to its humble location on Broadway between 19th and 20th streets.
But changing tides have meant an end to the family-run business, which current owners Joy, HanaLani and John Lee have run since taking over from an aunt in 2016. Prior to that, Joy and HanaLani’s aunt ran the business for “close to 20 years,” according to John, before she retired to Korea.
On Tuesday, John, Joy’s husband, announced on social media that the restaurant would be permanently closing its current location on Oct. 17. The building, which had been listed for sale for about two years, was in escrow and John said the business owners knew their days were numbered.
“Being connected to the community of Santa Monica — you have no idea. We have such a loyal customer base,” John said. “We have customers that literally come in every day to eat our food. If you look at the comments on our social media post, we’ve literally been serving generations in Santa Monica. Parents, their kids. That feeling of being part of our community — at the end of the day, we’re a mom-and-pop shop serving burgers and fries. Nothing special. But I think because of the long history and people coming to Big Jo’s since the ’70s — we get those stories all the time.”
Santa Monica resident Diana Flores said that she and her husband have frequented the restaurant for years.
“My husband was actually born and raised here and he’s 40 years old now and he’s been coming here since he was a kid,” she said. “It’s a big staple in our family.”
She said she headed over to pick up her regular order of a cheeseburger and fries as soon as she heard the news. Maryanne LaGuardia, another long time customer was also at the restaurant Tuesday and said she was “heartbroken” by the announcement.
“They make the best breakfast sandwiches in town,” she said. “They’re family owned and they remember your order from after the first time you come.”
John said they would miss their regulars, including doctors and nurses from UCLA Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital, students at Crossroads, and surfers stopping in for a bite before heading out in the morning.
“It’s been wonderful — it’s been great. It’s been really great, other than having to deal with crappy landlords, pretty much,” John said in a phone call with the Daily Press shortly after the Tuesday announcement.
On Tuesday afternoon around 1:30 p.m., Joy and HanaLani were at Big Jo’s handling the busy lunch rush and handed off the call to John. He said the two sisters were really the ones who ran the show.
“Her [Joy] and her sister — they really sacrificed their careers by taking over Big Jo’s,” John said. “They were never restaurant people; they were actually more in the arts industry. Joy was actually an illustrator and her sister was a wardrobe stylist, and they stumbled into running a mom-and-pop burger joint in Santa Monica because they saw it as a good opportunity.”
The future is unclear for Big Jo’s. The social media announcements proclaimed “Make sure to keep following us as we will be announcing updates for our RELOCATION!” but so far there are no solid plans for what that relocation might look like.
John said they were hoping to find a location in Santa Monica with a bigger kitchen that would allow them to expand their menu and offer some healthier options, but lamented high rents that might keep them from finding a suitable location for their inexpensive fare — where you can get a burger and fries for under $10.
“We still have plans to keep this going,” John said. “So, if we can keep customers engaged with us, when we do ultimately open up or reopen, we’re going to rely on people to come back.”
Big Jo’s loyal customers can follow along on Facebook (www.facebook.com/bigjosburgers) or Instagram (big_jos_burgers). That’s also where you can learn about customer appreciation plans that are still in the works for their final week in business.
John said he, Joy and HanaLani wanted to express their appreciation for loyal customers, but there was no firm plan yet in place.
“We love our customers, and we’re going to miss them,” John said. “It makes me sad even saying that and thinking about it, but it is what it is.”