Cheeseburger in Paradise founders and co-owners Edna Bayliff, left, and Laren Gartner, are served one of their trademark burgers by bartender Shayne Lehnen at their Lahaina restaurant.

Grilling up success
with a cheeseburger

With no money, no restaurant experience and no clue of what they were about to embark upon, Laren Gartner and Edna Bayliff opened up Cheeseburger In Paradise at their favorite vacation spot on Maui.

Fifteen years later, the two women from California have grown their business and the Cheeseburger brand into a multimillion-dollar operation with four locations and ambitious plans to expand.

The road to paradise hasn't been smooth for Gartner, 59, and Bayliff, 49, partners for the past 26 years.

They were sued in 1997 by singer Jimmy Buffett, who claimed they illegally used the title of his 1978 hit "Cheeseburger In Paradise."

After a four-year legal battle, a settlement was reached that allowed Gartner and Bayliff to keep the moniker at their existing restaurants in Lahaina and Waikiki, but prevented them from using the name on any additional locations.

Buffett, partnered with Outback Steakhouse Inc., launched his own chain of Cheeseburger In Paradise restaurants in 2002. He already had cafes named "Margaritaville," after another hit song.

"Are there hard feelings? Let see, I've doubled the business and I'm close to tripling it since the settlement of the lawsuit," Gartner said. "Nah. I don't have any hard feelings.

"The lawsuit forced me to look outside the words 'in paradise' and discover what was in front of me all the time, which was the power of the word 'cheeseburger."'

Cheeseburger Restaurants Inc. had $20 million in sales last year and is expected to reach $30 million this year. The Portola, Calif.-based company is soon adding three new restaurants in Hawaii. Cheeseburger Waikiki is scheduled to open this summer.

Gartner said the company will announce plans next year for several "Cheeseburger Island Style" restaurants across the country.

"I think aloha spirit translates universally," Gartner said. "I'm not the least bit worried (about expanding too fast). It's the golden rule: Treat people well, like you'd like to be treated. It's not any more complicated than that."

The new restaurants will feature a tropical theme -- bamboo and rattan decor, hula girl dolls and ukuleles. Waitresses wear bright, floral Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts over their shorts to zip around packed tables.

At Cheeseburger In Paradise in Waikiki, steps away from the warm white sand of Hawaii's famed beach, cheeseburgers start at $7.95 and are accompanied by a slice of pineapple and a tiny umbrella. Menu items average about $10 with a basket of fries costing $3.75.

No shirts, no shoes, no service? Not here.

Tourists often stroll in from the beach, wearing swimsuits and slippers.

Bud and Kay Gray of Ventura, Calif., stop in every time they visit Hawaii, and on a recent visit -- their fifth -- said they enjoy the food and the island ambiance.

"It's interesting, at home, I never eat burgers," Kay Gray said. "But when we come here, we always have to eat a cheeseburger in paradise."

Before becoming burger queens, Gartner and Bayliff sold art and picture frames at the Orange County swap meet in Costa Mesa, Calif., for 11 years.

"Seven days a week for 11 years," Gartner said. "Five days a week we made the pictures, two days we sold them at the fairgrounds. It was a rough business."

But that unglamorous experience taught them about hard work, how to turn a profit and how to survive in business.

"It's living on the edge. It's hard work. You hit every possible parameter of entrepreneurship when you do something like that," Gartner said. "I don't think we really realized how that particular school of hard knocks was going to serve us well when we got into the restaurant business. We were geared for war."

The idea of opening of a burger joint originated from Gartner's desire to find a quality cheeseburger on Maui. It wasn't until Bayliff came home with a Buffett tape that the pair found a perfect name.

After borrowing $500,000 from family and friends, they opened their first oceanside Cheeseburger In Paradise in 1989 on the second floor of a rundown, two-story waterfront building along Maui's bustling Front Street in Lahaina.

It was an instant hit with tremendous brand recognition, rare for a small startup.

"It was the name from the beginning," Gartner said. "Cheeseburger is a brand. It is the quintessential American, sexy, fun food. Eighty percent of the people knew what they wanted before they walked in the door."

The restaurant, which initially had only 1,600 square feet, had sales of $2.3 million in its first year. It quickly expanded to the bottom floor, doubling its space. Last year, it recorded $6.2 million in revenue.

The pair opened another Cheeseburger In Paradise in Waikiki in 1997.

That was followed by another Maui spot and the Cheeseburger at the Oasis in Las Vegas. They also opened a Cheeseburger restaurant in Mexico, which they sold last year.


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