Remarkable People 2023: John Paonessa and Mike Rogier, owners of Hamburger Mary’s in Orlando

Picture it: Orlando, 2008. The country is in the middle of a recession and downtown Orlando is still a few years away from the revitalization it so desperately needs, so partners John Paonessa and Mike Rogier sell off their thriving insurance agency to invest everything they have into opening a drag-themed burger restaurant inside an old hardware store. That last part might seem a little strange; however, as an industry professional I can assure you there’s still an infinite amount of duct tape and spackle filling that building! But I digress…

Good food and good friends were their goal, but what they couldn’t possibly have known was the sense of belonging and understanding they were actually fostering. To this day I don’t think they really understand the impact they’ve had on our little community in our little town, but I’ve been there from the beginning and I’ve seen it. Sure, the burgers are great. Yeah, the decor is delightfully tacky. Of course, the shows are amazing. But the true magic of the place lies squarely on the shoulders of John and Mike who have curated the most spectacular family of servers, hostesses, bar tenders, cooks, dishwashers, food runners and queens: the most diverse group of folx from wildly different walks of life that come together to show love and respect to everyone who walks through the front door. It’s a direct reflection of John and Mike’s amazing leadership, which has made our location the most successful franchise in the company!

Their dedication to the community is unparalleled. Aside from the multiple charity bingos or fundraisers they hold regularly in the restaurant, they’re often the first ones out in the thick of it all, offering a hand, asking what needs to be done. The whole world got to see that firsthand this year when all of the ridiculously hostile and unfounded legislation against Drag Queens and the people who support them was introduced. While most of us were running in circles, John and Mike took the proverbial bull by the horns and fought to keep our entertainers employed, our audiences entertained and our spaces safe.

On a more personal note, I owe a great deal of my success and who I am to my two “gay dads” who have always been there with a booking, a meal or some sage advice when I couldn’t even afford a ticket for the struggle bus! In a time before “Drag Race” (was there ever really such a time?) they gave me creative freedom to play and explore, eventually leading to Broadway Brunch. When Minx and I originally came up with the idea, we had no idea it would become not only a staple in the community, but an award-winning, must-see event for visitors from all over the world, still attracting sell-out crowds over a decade later, even though most of us OG’s have moved on to other projects. It’s a true testament to the naturally nurturing nature (say that 10 times fast!) of John and Mike. They’re not afraid to take chances. I still feel my most creative and free on that little stage in the corner, just in front of the windows, heckling the passersby. It’s home.

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