When I first got the news, I couldn't believe what I was reading.
Mike Hardin, 56, beloved burger wizard, local icon, and co-owner of Hodad's, died of natural causes in Madera County. Traveling to visit family in the Pacific Northwest, Hardin's body was found in a Holiday Inn off State Route 99 in Chowchilla on Feb. 5.
Much like Tony Gwynn, Junior Seau , Jerry Coleman, Loren Nancarrow, and Larry Himmel before him, Mike Hardin personified San Diego and his death left a community mourning. If you've spent time in O.B. over the years, chances are, you have a Hodad's story. My favorite involved a friend/radio colleague, Pat Osburn.
When Pat met his wife to-be, Jodi, at a weeknight work function in 1991, they were "over-served" by a bartender. OK, they drank too much. At work the next day with wicked hangovers, Osburn, an OBetian, invited Jodi to lunch for the ultimate remedy: a burger at Hodad's. She accepted. While sitting at the counter and waiting to indulge, they listened to the affable grill master, Hardin, share quippy anecdotes about life, surfing, and the Peoples Republic of O.B. - many referred to Mike as the funky beach town's ambassador.
Hardin's parents, Byron and Virginia, began flipping burgers in San Diego in 1969. After several years in El Cajon under the name "Hardin's Barrel," the family bought a little burger stand at the end of Santa Monica in O.B. Named "Hodad's," a nickname for a fake surfer, or modern-day kook. The humble business moved to a bigger venue in 1979, a sit-down restaurant on Voltaire. By 1991, with Mike, or "Bossman," at the helm, the burger joint tripled its revenue and expanded (yet again) to its present location on Newport Avenue.
As Pat and Jodi solidified their newfound relationship, they became regulars at Hodad's. Months into their union, they noticed a certificate hanging on a wall covered in vanity license plates, it read: "Mike Hardin, Ordained Minister" from the church of so and so. Turns out, in addition to being a burger maestro, Hardin possessed the legal status to officiate at weddings; no surprise, given his generous and loving nature.
Tattooed in his memory like "Bossman!" on Hardin's knuckles, Osburn remembers his wedding day, Dec. 7, 1991. A surprise ceremony disguised as a kegger in a friend's backyard, Hardin working the grill was the only guest who knew a wedding was about to break out. As the party hit capacity, Mike took off his apron, put on a sport coat and announced, "gather around everyone, it's Pearl Harbor day and I'm about to drop a bomb... welcome to Pat and Jodi's wedding." Boom.
By the 2000s, Hodad's was a longtime favorite among locals, topping all "best burger lists." With lines out the door, the restaurant hit a new stratosphere when it was featured on the Food Network in 2007. Appearing on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives," Fieri's coverage left such an impression on Hardin, he got a tattoo of Guy on his leg. The Food Network personality referred to Bossman as his "brother from another mother." As Hardin's celebrity grew, so did his gratefulness.
In 2011, Hardin opened a second Hodad's on Broadway at 10th Avenue in downtown San Diego, and the following year started a baseball-season concession at Petco Park. As much as Bossman will be forever known for running Hodad's, those close to him cite his generosity, loyalty and charitable works. A proud member of "The Messlords", a crew of chefs and restaurant owners from around the world feeding U.S. troops, Hardin has traveled to bases in Japan, Guam, Egypt, Bahrain, Djibouti, GTMO, Naples, and Puerto Rico.
As Fieri recently told U-T San Diego via email, "Mike was one of the most generous people I have ever known and he embraced life with a tremendous amount of appreciation." To Pat Osburn, Mike was a guy who put down the spatula to officiate his wedding for $8.49, "an arbitrary number to many, but not if you knew Bossman's wicked sense of humor."
To San Diego, he will be deeply missed.
Love you, Bossman.