It’s President’s Day, so let’s celebrate by talking about something a little less vital than presidential politics, but no less dear to my heart: Steak ‘n Shake.
If you grew up most anywhere in the Midwest or the South in the last sixty years or so, you probably know about Steak ‘n Shake. Growing up in St Louis, the Brentwood Blvd location — it seems to be gone now — was the high-school hangout spot. Good food, reasonable prices, and a staff with saintly patience enough to deal with wall-to-wall hungry, horny teenagers.
Steak ‘n’ Shake exists on a simple concept: a diner that makes “steakburgers” and milkshakes — and a pretty decent cup of chili. The kitchen is open for the world to see. The interior is all black and white tile and gleaming chrome. In fact, the concept is so simple it led to the two simplest (and maybe worst) slogans in restaurant history. “In sight, it must be right,” and “It’s a meal.”
I’m not sure you could possibly say less about a restaurant’s food than, “it’s a meal.” But, man, what a meal.
A triple steakburger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mustard, with large fries, a cup of chili, and a chocolate shake was nothing less than a way of life for my first 20 years.
But in 1989, I moved to California. From there, to Colorado. It’s been almost a quarter century since I’ve had reliable access to Steak ‘n Shake. Whenever I’d drive back to St. Louis, I’d always stop in KC — even if the tank was full — to grab a steakburger. Visiting North Carolina a couple years ago, I had lunch, then dinner that same night, at one of the restaurants in Charlotte. My order was the same both meals: A triple steakburger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mustard, with large fries, a cup of chili, and a chocolate shake.
We have a Five Guys. We have an In’n’Out. Both are good. But neither really compare. I’m not fat only because I have an overeager thyroid and no local Steak ‘n Shakes.
Only… that just changed, and I don’t mean my thyroid.
Back in November, SnS opened up a new shop in Centennial, a suburb of Denver just 30 minutes or so away from the VodkaBunker. Thirty minutes just to get diner food, isn’t that a bit extreme? Folks, I used to drive nine hours to Kansas City for my fix. A half hour is about how long it takes to get anywhere from Monument, CO.
Anyway, when I got to Centennial to meet a couple friends for lunch, I was frankly a little shocked. I’d watched the chain change a bit with the times. The famous drive-in style “curb service” has given way to drive-thrus at every location I can think of. And I’m pretty sure they dropped the lame old slogans. And that’s about it.
But four things stood out on my recent visit.
First: The crowds. Believe me, I know how starved Denver was for Steak ‘n’ Shake. I do believe I just spent nearly 500 words explaining how starved I was — so stretch that to cover an entire major metropolitan area. But this place opened in November, and here it was three months later — and it was still a serious wait to get a table, and the drive-thru line had taken up most of the parking lot. And did I mention this was in the middle of a very nasty little snowstorm? Visibility was poor, but it was still right.
Second: The location. It’s about the right size for a small-town McDonald’s, and it’s in the middle of a grocery store parking lot on a major street next to an interstate. To me that says they’re going for volume, high turnover, and at the lowest possible rent.
Third: I was struck by just how cheap the flatware was — but I think this is a good sign. Back the the ’90s, Steak ‘n Shake had tried to go upscale. More menu items to choose from, hefty flatware, cloth napkins. And they they went nowhere with it. This wasn’t the chain’s first brush with trouble, either. It was losing money in the early ’80s, too. But they now seem to have gone back to their roots.
Fourth: How low the bill was! Yep, this seems to confirm my third point. Three grown men ordered big lunches: Two double steakburgers, one triple (you can guess who had the triple), large Cokes and large fries all around. Total bill? Twenty bucks, not including tip. We overtipped, bringing the bill up to $25, because the waitress was straight out of Old School Diner central casting: Friendly, attentive, and called all of us “darlin’.” Twenty-five bucks to send three men back to work quite full and very happy? That sounds like a recipe for success.
It must be. Word is, they’re planning to open four more locations just in Denver very rapidly — and 1,500 new shops across the country over the next few years. From a base of about 500 restaurants today, that’s an aggressive expansion plan.
Is it as aggressive as a lunch and then a dinner of a triple steakburger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mustard, with large fries, a cup of chili, and a chocolate shake? Maybe not. But for a hungry nation in need of good food at reasonable prices, it must be right.