Iowa Family Diner Keeps Up Its ‘Coffee Bean Caucus’ Tradition

Iowa Family Diner Keeps Up Its ‘Coffee Bean Caucus’ Tradition

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After briefly closing in 2023, the restaurant reopened under new owners in time for the GOP caucus season.

IOWA CITY—You can’t walk far in the Hamburg Inn No. 2 without running into reminders of American presidential history.

Down in the basement, just before you hit your head against a low bathroom ceiling, there’s a door plastered in bumper stickers from campaigns past: Ross Perot for President, Bush-Quayle ’92, Tom Vilsack, Ross Perot ’92 (again), and so on.

Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton swung by the diner, albeit after their presidencies. Barack Obama came in 2007, before he was elected and back when Iowa was still first in the nation for both major parties.

After briefly closing in 2023, the restaurant reopened later that year under new owners in time for the GOP caucus season.
On Jan. 13, just two days before Iowa’s Republican caucus, I-380 north of Iowa City felt like a slippery, windy cattle chute. Overturned cars and jackknifed trucks were a common sight. Big signs warned:

“Severe Conditions”

“Eastern Iowa”

“Travel Not Advised”

The Hamburg Inn No. 2 was an escape from all that.

Young couples from the nearby University of Iowa sat across from each other in the old-fashioned booths. A handful of journalists, lampreys on the big political sharks, trickled in and out. Friendly staff delivered tasty and—by 2024 standards—cheap cheeseburgers and crinkle fries.

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Just inside the front door, above a framed picture of President Clinton, was one of the diner’s main attractions: a row of jars labeled with the last names of various presidential candidates and their party affiliation (someone had written an “I” in sharpie over the “D” under “Kennedy”).

Inside the jars were coffee beans. Patrons can put one in to vote for the candidate of their choice. Simple enough—but does anyone check to see if voters are sneaking in extra beans?

Jars fill up (or don't) in the Coffee Bean Caucus at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)
Jars fill up (or don’t) in the Coffee Bean Caucus at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

“As far as the Coffee Bean Caucus goes, it’s something Hamburg hosts,” said Owen Barstad, a second year at Iowa studying geoscience. Mr. Barstad, a former employee of the establishment, was picking up food from the front counter when he spoke with The Epoch Times.

Jars in the Coffee Bean Caucus at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, a mainstay for politicians touring the state, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)
Jars in the Coffee Bean Caucus at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, a mainstay for politicians touring the state, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

He said the practice was dormant when he was working there. He’s glad to see it revived.

“I think it’s a good tradition,” he said.

Signage and beans at the Coffee Bean Caucus, a tradition at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)
Signage and beans at the Coffee Bean Caucus, a tradition at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

Customers can vote in the caucus through the end of the real caucus, set to occur in even colder temperatures on Jan. 15.

Just outside, back in the harsh weather, Renee Speh spoke with The Epoch Times as she was leaving the diner with her husband and son.

“I’m worried about the Republican Party,“ said Ms. Speh, a Democrat. ”I just think [former President Donald] Trump is a disaster.”

She said she was glad to see the state Democratic Party’s old method of caucusing fall by the wayside. Participants had to rove around a room, moving to various “preference groups.”

One presidential election cycle after their notorious 2020 caucus, Iowa’s Democrats have turned to a very post-COVID protocol. Their presidential selection process will be entirely mail-in, with preference cards mailed out from Jan. 12 through Feb. 19. The results won’t be released until Super Tuesday, March 5—much closer to spring, but still cold on the prairie.

While some might worry about the potential for fraud with mail-in ballots, Ms. Speh sees the change as a victory for inclusivity.

“If you’re maybe elderly or have mobility issues or sensory issues—like you can’t stand really loud, loud voices in crowds—then you can’t go to the caucus,” she said.

Renee Speh stands outside the Hamburg Inn No. 3 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)
Renee Speh stands outside the Hamburg Inn No. 3 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

Iowa’s Republican caucus isn’t as hectic as the Democrats’ old system, but it will still involve gathering in one place on a very cold January night.

“The timing isn’t the best, but historically, it’s been this way,” said Shari Coughenour, the secretary of the Marshall County Republican Party, in an interview with The Epoch Times.

A burger and fries at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)
A burger and fries at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

“It’s something we could look at,” she added.

As Iowa’s caucuses change, or come close to changing, the Hamburg Inn No. 2 remains a small but memorable setting in the grand drama of presidential politicking. That’s assuming it doesn’t shut down again.

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