Steak 'n Shake1 is a chain of restaurants in the middle of the US that specialises in selling exactly what they advertise: steak and shakes. Not intended to be misleading, the 'steak' refers to cuts of steak ground up into burgers, called 'Steakburgers'. It's an idea that launched a tiny diner in the middle of Illinois in the 1930s, and continues to be popular in modern times.
Birth of a Steakburger
In the mid-1930s the US highway system was just hitting its stride. Road culture birthed many travel-oriented businesses like motels, service stations and diners. A most popular 'road food' offering was fried chicken, primarily because it was easy to prepare in large quantities. Gus Belt owned one of many chicken eateries on Route 66 in Normal, Illinois. In an industry where competition was steep, Belt wanted to try something different that would set him apart from the crowd. In February of 1934 he stopped buying chickens and started buying steaks - and the Steakburger was born2.
The 'Shake' half of Steak 'n Shake is an honest-to-goodness milkshake made with real ice cream and real milk. Every shake is crowned with whipped cream topping and a cherry.
The first Steak 'n Shake was a small, counter-only set-up. The grill area was in plain view of the diners, as was the meat grinder. On a daily basis, Belt would cart the fresh steaks into the diner and grind them right in front of the customers. This practice gave rise to the restaurant's motto: 'In Sight, It Must Be Right'.
The Steakburger Catches on
Steak 'n Shake was nearly an immediate success. Belt purchased a central-Illinois chain of restaurants and converted them all to Steak 'n Shakes to meet demand. Even with additional locations, his restaurants were always full of customers lined up waiting for tables. Curb service was introduced so diners could order food and eat it in their cars, instead of having to wait for a table to open up. By the late 1930s, franchised locations were established in Missouri, Indiana, Florida and Arkansas.
Gus Belt ran the business until his death in 1954. Ownership passed to his wife, Edith, who continued to operate the chain until 1969 when she sold it to an east-coast steakhouse company.
Steak 'n Shake was sold again in 1971 to the Franklin Corporation. Franklin put much effort into expanding the brand, and by 1975 there were more than 130 stores. Franklin was also responsible for the elimination of curb service, and during the 1970s restaurants were updated with drive-through windows. In 1981 Franklin Corporation sold Steak 'n Shake to EW Kelley and Associates.
The Modern Steak 'n Shake
Ed Kelley is generally considered the 'modern day' founder of Steak 'n Shake. He took the idea for the restaurant back to Belt's original vision, expanded and updated the menu, and for the first time offered breakfast. To meet customer demand all stores began operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
In 1990 Kelley began growing the business again, and in ten years' time the number of locations had nearly doubled. At the time of writing, there were over 430 Steak 'n Shakes in 20 states, mostly in the Midwest and southeast US.
All Steak 'n Shakes follow the same basic design ideas. They are decorated entirely in black, white, red and chrome. There is a small counter area for guests to be served at, usually just six or seven stools directly across from the grill, which is still in plain view of diners. There is also a dining room and a drive-through. The floors are black and white ceramic tile, the booths are black vinyl, the chairs are red vinyl and the tables are white. Windows surround the entire dining area. Employees wear white shirts with black trousers and black and white checked aprons, and the cooks still wear little paper hats. The overall effect is of a modernised 1950s diner.
Upon entering a Steak 'n Shake, a hostess will usually greet you and take you to a table. Occasionally, during busy times or when they are short-staffed, there may be a sign inviting guests to seat themselves.
Advertisements suggest one can order off the sign or off the menu. Ordering off the sign will get you a Steakburger prepared over a grill in plain view with whatever condiments you choose and a milkshake (still made with real ice cream and real milk) in a variety of flavours from chocolate or vanilla to cheesecake, peanut butter or banana split. Ordering off the menu affords you a wider selection.
From the menu a Steakburger can be jazzed up with grilled onions or mushrooms, with bacon or extra cheeses (American, Swiss or cheddar). The menu also offers chicken, turkey and patty melts, and any sandwich can be accompanied by a 'platter special': two side dishes. Side dishes include their unique shoestring French fries3, soup, salad and cottage cheese. Rounding out the entrees4 are several chilli dishes5. The breakfast menu offers standard morning fare: eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits6 and potatoes in virtually any combination. A kids' menu features smaller portions of a few regular items. For dessert there's floats, sundaes and cobblers7.
Not quite fast food and not nearly formal dining, a meal at Steak 'n Shake will set you back a bit further than your standard drive-through fare. On average, expect to spend approximately $10 per adult, including tax and tip.BBC Food - Make your own burgersBBC Food - Make your own milkshake