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This man loves hamburgers so much he built a museum to them

Miami Herald

Sef Gonzalez, aka The Burger Beast, opened his Burger Museum in Miami on Dec. 2.
Sef Gonzalez, aka The Burger Beast, opened his Burger Museum in Miami on Dec. 2. jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Dinner at McDonald’s was a treat for Sef Gonzalez.

It meant it was Thursday night – the night his mother got out of work early from her job as a doctor’s office assistant, and his family could dine out together.

Not that they could splurge. His grandparents, parents and he and his sister were still packed together in their Westchester home just as they had been when he was a baby in upper Manhattan, where his grandparents settled after fleeing Cuba in the 1950s.

Thursdays, though, when Mom was home early and his father wasn’t delivering Wise potato chips on his Hialeah route, was family time.

“It was important that we got to spend that time together,” Gonzalez said. “The bonding of a family around a dinner table, I don’t know if it really happens anymore.”

It wasn’t always McDonald’s. Sometimes it was Lums or Latin American Cuban restaurant or Burger King. Only one thing was certain: Sef was having a burger.

“The rest of the family would eat things other than burgers,” he said. “Any place I saw a burger on the menu – and it’s still that way today – I have to have the burger.”

That’s a long way of answering the question of why Gonzalez, a St. Brendan grad who went on start a popular Miami food blog, eponymously titled The Burger Beast, decided to open a burger museum in Miami – the first of its kind in the United States.

The Burger Museum by Burger Beast just opened this month at the Magic City Casino, where Gonzalez hosts regular food truck rallies that bring street-food lovers from all parts of South Florida to this forgotten spot in central Miami. McDonald’s will be serving burgers on site, including their new versions of the Big Mac.

The 1,200-square-foot museum houses more than 2,000 items Gonzalez has collected over the past seven years. More than 500 other items still in storage will be used to rotate the collection.

You'll find more than burgers represented here. That much is clear from the moment you step inside to find an oil painting of Alice Cooper sitting on a throne of White Castle hamburgers. The Burger Museum tells the story of the way Miami restaurants, from fast-food chains to beloved family-owned spots, have evolved in parallel with the city. And it’s not tchotchkes and bric-a-brac.

You'll find images and uniforms from Royal Castle, which was founded in South Florida and headquartered in Hialeah. Blueprints of the first Burger King here. Pristine waitress uniforms from Krystal Hamburger, dating back to the 1940s. Styrofoam containers from the original Burger King Whopper and the double-headed container for the forgotten McDonald’s McDLT. (Remember? Hot on one side, cool on the other.)

Remember, too, the castle-like El Cid restaurant on Le Jeune Road, an iconic building that has long ago been razed? Gonzalez has historical photos and memorabilia of the place. Further down, there’s a classic stained glass lamp and part of a Wendy’s salad bar next to a photo of Dave Thomas eating a salad under the very items, donated by the Ohio-based company.

“It was great to see so many of the old photos and memorabilia,” said McDonald’s franchisee Peter Menendez Jr., 37, who grew up in the business with his father and got a sneak peek of the museum. “It’s a really unique walk down food memory lane.”

And it all started with a sign from a Burger Chef restaurant a friend gave Gonzalez years ago.

His collection grew, and not by design. He has an appetite for history. His blog went from becoming strictly reviews of local burgers and restaurants to a place Gonzalez could tell stories about Miami’s favorite or forgotten historical markers.

Gonzalez wants the Burger Museum to be something that the Miami in the glitzy brochure is not: authentic. When someone comes to South Florida to visit, he doesn’t point them to the trendy areas.

He sends them to Finka (started by the granddaughter of the Islas Canarias founders) in West Kendall, Latin House on Sunset Drive and La Fresa Francesa (a French restaurant founded by a Monsignor Pace High graduate) in Hialeah.

“I don’t delve into Wynwood, and I don’t delve into the Beach. I don’t delve into areas that are overexposed,” he said. “I feel this area is underexposed.”

The museum (www.burgerbeastmuseum.com) is the kind of place where you could spend 10 minutes or four hours and walk out having learned something you never knew about Miami.

Gonzalez invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Burger Museum, taking no outside investors other than an online campaign that raised $10,000.

“We’re happy to hitch our wagon to him,” said Izzy Havenick, whose family owns the casino. “We’re happy to be the bacon to his cheeseburger.”

Gonzalez opened the doors for a few hours last week for friends and family and watched them recall their childhoods.

“I want something that evokes emotions in people, and that’s what the museum does,” Gonzalez said. “I want them to love this as much as I do.”

Part historian, part entertainer, Gonzalez has both in his blood. His paternal grandfather (Serafin, for whom he and his father are named) was a lucha libre wrestler married to a flamenco dancer. A horror movie buff who once owned a macabre-looking movie rental store in Westchester called Oh, The Horror, Gonzalez makes his own house look like Halloween for Christmas. (Think creepy baby doll heads hanging from a black Christmas tree.)

Years ago, he thought he might start a horror movie museum. He even bought a book about how to open one. It sat mostly unread in his bathroom magazine rack for more than a decade until he stumbled upon it earlier this year.

Instead, Gonzalez invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Burger Museum, taking no outside investors other than an online campaign that raised $10,000.

To show for it, he’s got his burger museum. The museum sits by the entrance of a casino in a working class neighborhood, where it is bizarre and incongruous and perfectly Miami.

“I get asked a lot why would I open a burger museum. And my question to you is why wouldn’t I?” he said. “I have an obsession with burgers. I have an obsession with history. This is the best of both worlds.”

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