Category Archives: drive-ins

Carhops in fact and fiction

The word “carhop” is almost certain to bring to mind a teenage girl dressed in a brief costume, possibly on roller skates. Ever since the George Lucas movie American Graffiti in 1973, the female carhop has become an icon. She is an object of nostalgia, even for those too young to have experienced drive-ins with carhops.

It’s not certain when she appeared on the scene. Curb service, usually for soda fountains in pharmacies, goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Usually boys were hired to rush orders while the driver of a car, or horse-drawn wagon, waited impatiently along the curb in front. In the 1920s Pig Stands selling sodas and sandwiches in Texas offered the same service. The Hot Shoppes also came along in the 1920s. In 1931 they advertised in Washington, D.C. for “girls for tray service.” In 1933 a Miami Beach drive-in looked for an “attractive curb waitress.”

By the late 1930s teenage girls and young [white] women (25 at the very oldest) were commonplace in Texas and California drive-ins and were the subject of quite a bit of turmoil. They worked long hours, often until late at night. In many cases, they not only delivered sandwiches to customers, but also beer, sometimes working for drive-ins that were more tavern than restaurant.

Issues surrounding female carhops came to a head in Texas and California in 1940. In January California’s chief of the Division of Industrial Welfare ordered 30 drive-ins to pay carhops the state’s legal minimum wage for women which was $16 a week. The drive-ins reacted negatively, being accustomed to paying no wages at all – carhops worked for tips only — as well as charging carhops for uniforms and meals. The Industrial Welfare head, a woman, threatened to arrest drive-in operators who failed to comply.

Meanwhile, in Texas the press was aglow with publicity about its carhops in LIFE magazine. The magazine’s cover showed an attractive teen dressed in a drum majorette outfit with what were then considered very short shorts. Stories in the Dallas press about carhops at that time were flippant, like one about the couple thrown out of a surrey. The sheriff, the story related, said “the horse probably had shied at the girl carhops in shorts who are employed at a near-by beer tavern.”

 

Although the drive-in featured in LIFE was in Houston, I wonder if all the publicity generated by that story was responsible for the blossoming movement of Dallas women who objected to carhops dressed in “scanties.” One letter-to-the-editor charged that if drive-in owners had to rely on “cheap chorus comedy cavortings” then the carhops “should be paid show house wages.” But when another letter writer suggested male carhops should also be dressed in short shorts and boots, the drive-in burlesque heated up as a few roadside places complied, attracting mobs of women. [illustration shows carhop interview]

Over time the campaign for modest dress for carhops met with more success than did the attempts to win wages for California carhops, or to unionize carhops in Dallas. In Texas, the state Restaurant Association denounced skimpy outfits and declared bare skin a violation of the state’s sanitary laws. The public, led by women and church leaders, grew more supportive of reform. With drive-ins in Houston and Dallas, one of the state’s largest operators, Sivils, agreed in 1942 to abandon shorts and bare midriffs for knee-length skirts and waist-long jackets. Other drive-ins followed their example, many dressing carhops in blouses and slacks. Meanwhile, drive-in owners in California went to court for a permanent injunction against the minimum wage order issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission. A judge ruled in their favor after they brought in more than a dozen carhops who testified they made from $25 to $70 a night in tips. A campaign to organize carhops at Sivils in Dallas likewise met defeat. Although the carhops voted for unionization, demanding a salary of $3 a week, a daily meal, and free uniforms, Sivils flatly rejected their vote.

In the course of the struggles new facts about carhops emerged. Far from carefree many of them were parents who, even if married, needed to work to support their families. A bitter letter testifying to this appeared in May, 1940, signed “two former carhops.” The women wrote that carhops dressed in shorts and grass skirts “are at least coming nearer to making a living wage than at any other time of their existence” while the women who complained about their outfits did not have to work for a living. They argued that without big tips, some carhops would become streetwalkers.

Big tips or not, serving customers in cars could be a trying experience, and the turnover rate among carhops was high, with many lasting only a few weeks. A 1957 column in Drive-In Restaurant, a trade magazine, revealed how carhops characterized customers: The Food Refuser, The Horn Blower, The Souvenir Seeker, the Breakage Fiends, The Deadbeats, The Wolves. As the last implies, attention from men was not always enjoyable, and sometimes it was dangerously hostile. In 1953, there was an instance of boys driving by a drive-in pelting girl carhops with gravel in Sacramento CA. A few carhops even met their deaths from obsessed customers.

By the mid-1950s, some drive-ins looked for ways to speed up service with automated ordering, usually from intercoms mounted on poles. Carhops’ only job then was to deliver food. Other drive-ins eliminated car service entirely, requiring customers to walk up to a window to order their food and carry it back to their car. When Ray Kroc took over the McDonald brothers’ drive-ins, he continued their practice of walk-up service. In the late 1950s Kroc reportedly attributed his company’s expansion to “no tipping, no jukebox, and no carhops.”

Although drive-ins with carhops can still be found today in some places, elegies for them began in the 1970s, American Graffiti being a prime example. Carhop fiction is more entertaining, but recognizing the difficulties carhops experienced in doing their jobs is, in my opinion, a better way to acknowledge them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under drive-ins, patrons, roadside restaurants, uniforms & costumes, women

“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
comeasyouare1899
And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, drive-ins, elite restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette

A fantasy drive-in

carl'sviewparkMenu

I am fascinated by restaurants that are bizarrely at odds with their location, climate, and cultural environment. Such as Polynesian restaurants in Arizona.

Drive-ins make sense in car-obsessed Southern California, but a grandiose drive-in such as Carl’s “Colonial” with an Old South theme in Depression-era Los Angeles? With architecture inspired by Southern plantations and white female servers costumed as Southern belles and top-hatted coachmen? With an ornate mahogany doorway leading from the staid dining room into a streamlined moderne barroom? [see below] And a thoroughly modern, thermostatically controlled stainless steel kitchen turning out spaghetti and turkey with New England dressing?

Carl'sViewparkdiningroomwithbar

All societies offer some form of escapism, traditionally wild festivals where revelers are released from everyday roles and inhibitions. But restaurants such as Carl’s offered a different kind of  escapism that shored up inhibitions and insured that roles were strictly adhered to. Far from allowing revelry or role reversal, gracious Southern dining took place in a forbidding room decorated with murals of slaves picking cotton and a portrait of George Washington looming from above the mantle. [shown above; the murals are barely visible]  Only white girls were allowed to dress as Southern belles; ice water and rolls were dispensed by dark-skinned “mammies.”

carlsViewparkservers

Yet in another way Carl’s was totally in sync with its environment. A Los Angeles Times story in 1940 noted, “Los Angeles restaurants serving American food often reflect the architecture of other lands.” Undoubtedly part of the explanation for the scenographic quality of Carl’s – and many other unusual theme restaurants in Southern California – was that they played to tourists’ fantasies. And why not, since a hefty 25% of restaurant revenue was estimated to come from tourists?

carl'sViewparkMarch1938The “Colonial” Carl’s, on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon, was built by the Los Angeles Investment Company and leased to its operators, Carl B. Anders and A. V. Spencer. The area was under development with about 13 new stores on Crenshaw skirting the residential subdivision of Viewpark. When Carl’s opened in 1938 there were close to 1,000 homes in Viewpark with more underway following the company’s acquisition of acreage that had housed the Olympic Village in 1932. Under restrictive covenants, houses could be sold only to white buyers.

Despite serving up to 4,000 customers a day, many of them groups such as women’s and businessmen’s clubs, Carl’s Colonial in Viewpark went out of business in 1953. After a brief run as Martha’s Restaurant, it was torched in 1954, destroying the building that had cost the fabulous sum of $115,000 when it was constructed.

Carl’s in Viewpark was one of five in the Carl’s chain (not to be confused with Carl’s, Jr.). The first was opened in 1931 on Figueroa and Flower as a simple hamburger stand built to serve people attending the 1932 Olympic Games. It was so successful it was enlarged three times in four years, serving up to 5,000 people daily in 1937. The chain became known for its multi-purpose restaurants that included a drive-in component as well as full-service dining rooms, banquet facilities, outdoor dining patios, and cocktail lounges. Other Carl’s included one on the Plaza in Palm Springs, one on the Pacific Coast Highway that was featured in the movie Mildred Pierce, and one on East Olympic Blvd. at Soto Street.

According to John T. Edge, Southern theme restaurants have recently resurfaced in Los Angeles.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, racism, restaurant decor

Restaurant-ing with Mildred Pierce

mildredpierceaswaitress

Many Americans are familiar with the story of the fictional Mildred Pierce, the mid-century wife and mother who kicks out her unemployed, philandering husband and becomes the family’s breadwinner so she can support her two daughters, especially her musically talented older daughter Veda.

Mildred Pierce was the main character in James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, the star of a melodramatic 1945 black & white film-noir with Joan Crawford, and the protagonist in a color HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet.

Lacking experience other than housewifery, Mildred turns to restaurants for work. Starting as a waitress, she builds a home-based business as purveyor of pies to restaurants, then opens a restaurant of her own, building it into a small chain in greater Los Angeles.

Although the three renditions of the story differ, they all feature Mildred’s restaurant career. Why did Cain choose this line of work for Mildred? I suspect he wanted something that readers would believe a woman could succeed in. Though I have no direct evidence, I feel sure he based Mildred’s career on that of the much-publicized Alice Foote MacDougall of 1920s fame whose success story was told repeatedly in magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. In the 1927 column “Girls Who Did,” MacDougall, then pushing 60, was headlined as “A Girl Who Never Expected to Enter Business and Who Has Become a Dealer in Wholesale Roasted Coffee and Owner of Four Restaurants.”

But – oh dear – MacDougall’s empire went into receivership in the early Depression, shortly after Mildred Pierce launched her restaurant chain. Of course most movies demand suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers, but let’s just admit that 1931 was not a favorable time to go into business. The 1935 National Handbook of Restaurant Data dismally reported that “75% of the women who open restaurants fail within the year.” Mainly, it said, due to lack of capital and knowledge of business management.

mildredpierceherrestaurarantMaybeCain, who stuffs his novel with copious details about running restaurants, must have been aware of this problem because he had Mildred, er, entertain her husband’s former business partner Wally to insure a favorable start-up. In the book she builds up to a total of three restaurants. The first, located in a house and specializing in chicken and waffles, actually conforms to the path many women of the 1920s and 1930s took starting small restaurants and tea rooms that served home-like dishes in domestic settings. Her second, a luncheonette in Beverly Hills, is somewhat believable despite being in a high rent area. Her third, on the other hand, a swanky beachside resort, is a reach.

Advancing farther on the unlikelyhood scale, the 1945 movie threw caution aside and had Mildred with five restaurants in only four years. Even the fantabulous Alice took 10 years to get to four! What’s more, all but one of Mildred’s had drive-in curb service, even though women rarely owned drive-ins. Plus, many drive-ins closed during the war because of gasoline rationing that limited driving.

Of the five restaurants depicted in the 1945 film, three are identifiable as actual restaurant locations, while the identity of the other two is unclear.

MildredpierceDoloresdrive-inInset#1 – the new Dolores drive-in on Sunset Blvd. & Horn (inset top left; movie still in b&w)
MildredPierceexteriorofRestaurant4#2 – supposed to be Beverly Hills, but location unknown and possibly not an actual restaurant at all (movie still)

mildredpierceExteriorofRestaurant3 – unidentified but appears to be a real drive-in (movie still)

MildredPierceexteriorofrestaurant5#4 – exterior shot filmed at Carl’s Sea Air on the Pacific Coast Highway (movie still on left; Carl’s postcard on right)

mildredpiercecarpenter'sGlendale1938E.Colorado#5 – Carpenter’s restaurant on Glendale & Colorado shown fleetingly (not a movie still)

The slow-moving HBO series follows Cain’s book more closely than the 1945 movie. (As in the book, there is no murder.) There are only three restaurants, all movie creations: 1) the model house from the Pierce Homes development once owned by Mildred’s ex-husband; 2) the Beverly Hills luncheonette; and, 3) a seaside estate which doesn’t look a bit like it’s in California.

In the book and at several points in the 1945 movie Mildred, who we are told comes from the lower-middle class, runs up against the upper class, always getting bruised in the encounters. As a restaurant historian, one of the most interesting lines to me occurs when she meets the snobby mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. Mildred recognizes her but forgets that she had once interviewed to be her housekeeper and was humiliated by the woman. She tries to place her, asking if she has ever been to her restaurant and the woman replies haughtily, “But I don’t go to restaurants, Mrs. Pierce.” It would have been more believable in the East, around 1900, but still an interesting comment on the unexalted status of restaurant-ing.

Cain, who was also a gourmet, an amateur cook, and a magazine food writer on topics such as “Midnight Spaghetti,” “Crepes Suzette,” and “Carving Game Duck,” befriended Alexander Perino when he was headwaiter at The Town House and suggested Perino open his own restaurant which he famously did in 1932. Restaurants also figured in Cain’s books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Galatea, both of which involve the betrayal and murder of husbands.

In Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Mildred ends up broke, restaurantless, alienated from Veda, and living with her ex-husband, both of them ready to pursue a life of heavy drinking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, women

“Adult” restaurants

Anyone who knows American culture realizes immediately that the term “adult restaurant” would not even remotely imply an eating place that caters to mature or developed culinary tastes. Instead it would mean one deemed inappropriate for children because of some kind of sexually tinged goings on.

Historically the attractions in adult restaurants have not been what’s on the plate but are part of the female servers’ anatomy.

An unfamiliar restaurant concept to me is the “adult fast food restaurant.” This is how a Florida drive-in owner referred to his business in 1976. It didn’t serve adult fast food – what would that be? Crêpes? It served hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, and, oddly, wine. The manager called it “our answer to MacDonald’s,” reflecting the fierce competition drive-ins faced from big chains in the 1970s.

The “adult” aspect: servers at the “Jugs ‘n’ Suds” drive-in were costumed only in hot pants and tassles.

However, Jugs ‘n’ Suds waitresses got very little chance to “wear” their intended costume. The drive-in met with vehement disapproval from citizens and officials of New Port Richey who insisted that the waitresses cover up. One of the restaurant’s promoters admitted that business fell off once apron-like halter tops were adopted, saying “People aren’t as interested in seeing a topless waitress with fringe on.” [pictured] In very short order the drive-in closed. A second one – without carhops — then opened in an old A&W. I don’t think it lasted long. A fantasized  nationwide chain never materialized.

Jugs ‘n’ Suds was unusual in that it was a drive-in. Most topless restaurants have been positioned at the “nightclub” end of the restaurant spectrum. Typically they’ve been dark, bar-like spaces where business men congregate at noon and after work.

California was the birthplace of the topless restaurant with the pioneers opening in 1965 not long after the creation of Rudi Gernrich’s topless bathing suit. Many offered a business man’s lunch special accompanied by models strolling from table to table. In California, at Long Beach’s Kozy Kitten, kittens ambled while patrons downed 98c luncheons of Turkey, Ham, or Beef served with Potato Salad and Beans. (I didn’t say topless restaurants were glamorous.)

The topless restaurant fad, which combined gawking, drinking, AND eating, died out, but using women’s anatomy to attract restaurant patrons did not. Maybe it’s eternal. Even as the last Playboy bunny club closed in the 1988, a new crop of “breastaurants” (as they are mockingly known by critics) appeared, most of them flaunting scantily dressed servers. Following the success of Hooters, a slew of knock-offs opened in Florida, among them the so preciously named Melons, Knockers, and Mugs & Jugs.

Controversy is also eternal. Hooters’ aggressively suggestive advertising campaign has offended many and the chain was forced to remove billboards that hinted servers were prostitutes, an idea that, depressingly, has plagued female servers since the 19th century.

Legal challenges to topless restaurants and breastaurants have mostly not held up. But communities protest them anyway, occasionally successfully. Recently the Quincy MA Licensing Board denied permission to a unit of the Tilted Kilt chain because it was too close to a church that objected.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under drive-ins, food, women

Famous in its day: the Parkmoor

It’s been somewhat frustrating researching the Parkmoor chain of drive-ins that once did business in St. Louis, my home town. My main source has been a book written by Lou Ellen McGinley, daughter of the chain’s founder and manager of the Clayton Road Parkmoor from 1977 until its closing in 1999.

The book is called Honk for Service, yet throughout it are shown menus that say clearly at the top “Flash Your Lights for Service.” Alas, this is but one tipoff that somebody wasn’t totally on the job.

Nevertheless, the book enlightened me about a number of things, especially that there were once six Parkmoors in St. Louis. I had thought that the Parkmoor at Big Bend and Clayton was the one and only. In fact it was the sole survivor as well as the original, in 1930 the site of a Tudor-style drive-in. Three more Parkmoors opened in the 1930s and two in the 1950s, but all five of them were gone by 1971.

From 1940 to 1953 there was also a McGinley Parkmoor in Indianapolis. Parkmoor was a popular name for mid-century drive-ins. The Parkmoors in Amarillo TX, Knoxville TN (one O), Dayton OH, and Sarasota FL were not related.

I enjoyed the book’s charming illustrations, but I was disappointed to find only a single blurred and partial image of the exterior of the modern orange-roofed Parkmoor building that most St. Louisans knew (pictured above after being closed; razed in 2004). And there was no mention of when it was constructed, who designed it, or why the McGinleys chose what was for architecturally conservative St. Louis such an exotic, California-style design.

As I remember it, the interior was impressively ugly. It had a tall peaked ceiling and a lava-stone back wall. All the seating was built-in and covered in orange leatherette. To the right of the entrance was an L-shaped counter with cantilevered seats that projected up diagonally from the base. Down the center of the room was a 3-foot high divider with plants growing from the top. On either side of the divider were rows of two-person mini-booths, while larger booths ran along the continuous windows to the left.

From what I’ve been able to discover poking around, the Googie-style Parkmoor was built in 1969. By that time the restaurant was no longer a drive-in. Honk for Service does not say when carhops were dispensed with, but according to a newspaper want ad they were still being hired in 1963 even though two locations had adopted speaker-based ordering systems by then.

Lou Ellen’s father, William Louis McGinley, began his business career in the 1920s as head of a Texas company that sold trays to drive-ins. According to Honk for Service he was inspired to open a drive-in in St. Louis as an “I’ll show them” response after he was informed by Dorr & Zeller, an old-line catering company, that St. Louis was not the kind of city that would accept drive-ins.

Was it a similar motive that led McGinley to open a Parkmoor very near Dorr & Zeller on DeBaliviere in the city’s west end? It turned out to be an ill-fated locale. A brawl there in which police shot and killed two men in 1965 may have contributed to the demise of that location a few years later.

Both generations of McGinleys were cattle ranchers who spent much of their time in Texas while overseeing the Parkmoor. As with most drive-ins, the menu featured hamburgers; the beef was ground in a two-story commissary building erected on a corner of the Clayton Road Parkmoor’s parking lot. The beef, however, did not come from the family’s Texas ranch.

A little taste of Texas appeared on a 1930 menu which offers a Top Sirloin Steak served with French fried potatoes, lettuce, tomato, bread and butter – plus a “Texas preserved fig” – all for 55c. Add a Dr. Pepper for an additional 5c.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Steakburgers and shakes

After recently reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful book Life Itself, I decided to write this post and dedicate it to him. I loved his depictions of his childhood, which included his first restaurant meal, a steakburger at Steak n Shake, near the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign where his father worked as an electrician. He has also written about the restaurant on his Sun Times blog.

Even though I grew up in St. Louis, where there were many Steak n Shakes, most with curb service in the early years, I knew nothing about the chain’s history then and mistakenly believed it originated in St. Louis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I held a widespread St. Louis prejudice that few good things came from Illinois, the chain’s first home.

The chain was founded by Gus Belt and his wife Edith. Their basic problem was the Depression. The gas station Gus operated in the town of Normal, Illinois, was not thriving. In 1932 he and Edith decided to extend into the restaurant business by converting a house on the property to an eating place serving Edith’s fried chicken and beer, which was about to become legal in the first stage of Repeal. They called it the Shell Inn.

According to Robert Cronin’s Selling Steakburgers, beer was a bigger hit than chicken. Because Normal was the home of a state college that trained teachers, who were supposed to be morally upright, the town had a long history of forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. After a brief wide-open period following Repeal, the town voted 2 to 1 to remain dry. Seeing what was about to befall their eatery, Edith and Gus decided to turn it into a hamburger joint.

They followed an honored tradition in the restaurant business of studying the successful practices of others and copying them like crazy.

The Shell Inn’s prime customers were the students at the nearby teachers college. No doubt the Belts had observed how much college students in the neighboring town of Champaign enjoyed hamburgers at the White Spot, the White House Lunch, Wimpy’s, and Maid-Rite. With the switch to burgers, the Belts renamed their place “Whitehouse Steak n Shake.” Later, they would adopt another idea from Champaign’s hamburger sellers, that of selling burgers by the bag (“Buy ‘Em by the Sack” advertised White Spot), borrowing the “Takhomasak” slogan from a Colorado restaurant. The idea of advertising that your hamburgers contained higher grades of steak was not unique to Steak n Shake. In Detroit during the Depression, there were a couple of places advertising this: the Marcus All Steak Hamburger Restaurant chain, and Meyers Real Steak Hamburgers. I wonder too if the Belts got the idea of serving food on china from Champaign’s Wimpy’s.

Their timing was good. Led by youthful first adopters, hamburgers, once shunned by the middle class who associated them with poverty and adulteration, were gaining respectability. Also reassuring was Steak n Shake’s squeaky clean white tile interior characteristic of 1920s lunch rooms and hamburger chains such as White Castle.

Theirs was among a number of hamburger chains that proliferated in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas during the Depression. Among the chains that got their start then were Little Canary Castle (Winston-Salem NC, 1931), Krystal (Chattanooga TN, 1932), Wimpy Grills (Bloomington IN, 1934), White Hut (Toledo OH, 1935), and Rockybilt (Denver CO, 1936). So the 1930s, which had begun so poorly for the couple, turned out well for them.

By 1940 the Belts had units in Normal’s twin city of Bloomington, as well as Champaign [1937 advertisement above], Decatur, E. Peoria [pictured at top], Galesburg, Danville, and Springfield. In the late 1940s Steak n Shake moved into St. Louis and in 1959, five years after Gus’s death, with Edith at the helm, there were 14 units in that city. Indianapolis [pictured 1965] and Florida were other early markets. By the time Edith sold the family’s controlling interest to the Longchamps corporation in 1969, there were 50 or so units.

After that the story shifts to corporate history, with decades of ups and downs, aborted openings in Chicago and Texas, modernizations and returns to roots, changes in ownership, and further expansion until today when there are almost 500 units in 22 states.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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