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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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Filed under drive-ins, popular restaurants

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Anna de Naucaze

In 1908 two women adventurers opened The Rose Tree Inn, a tea room in a 200-year old house in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both called themselves “Madame” and claimed to be related to European nobility by birth or marriage. They were used to supporting themselves and living by their wits. One, Anna [pictured], a widow, was a former British stage actress, while the other, Marie, who had an 11-year old son, was married to a criminally inclined soldier of fortune who masqueraded as a German baron and was exiled to a British penal colony.

Each had arrived in New York City from London in 1907 to cover the sensational Harry Thaw murder trial for British papers. Almost immediately they became involved in what might be termed attempted “capers.” Madame Anna de Naucaze, 52, claimed she knew the secret to winning at roulette and could prove it if only someone would back her at Monte Carlo, while Madame Marie von Veltheim, about 38, said she had a treasure map showing where $4 million in gold was buried in mountains in South Africa’s Transvaal.

Next they got in trouble with the courts for misappropriating a photo album that was evidence in the Thaw trial. The album contained photographs of Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit who had been having an affair with Thaw’s victim, architect Stanford White. With a possible charge of larceny hanging over them, Anna returned the album to Thaw’s lawyer.

And then they went to Northampton. By comparison with their pasts, the small college town must have seemed dull. It’s not clear what drew them there, though if they were looking for a way to make money, they found it. The RTI, as it was known by its primary patrons, Smith College students, became a very popular place known for its sumptuous desserts and continental, “bohemian” atmosphere. Marie, who claimed to be the inn’s originator, stayed around until about 1913 when, after looking for a location for a new tea room, she evidently left for New York to “save her husband.”

Anna ran the tea room for the next 10 years, catering to students from Smith, Amherst College, and the Massachusetts Agricultural College. She took out advertisements as far away as Yale and also entertained visitors from her stage and literary past. She did well enough to warrant additions to the inn, one a screened-in section known as “the bird cage.” She opened two annexes in town, the Rose Tree Hut and the Rose Tree Den. At some point there was also a summer branch of the RTI in Old Orchard, Maine.

In addition to the attractions of delicious food and the quaint house with its old world charm, everyone was intrigued with the eccentric person of Anna herself, particularly because her gender was ambiguous. She dressed like a man and seemed mysterious. As one student put it, “Some say she is fleeing from justice, that she married a Frenchman and were greatly in debt so left France and came to America.” She was reported at various times to have been born in France, Belgium, and Russia. For several years she published a magazine called “4 All,” and she occasionally appeared in local theater productions. She was also known for writing her own humorous and folksy advertising copy, such as, “If you descend in an aëroplane we will be ready for you, but we much prefer to have you telephone.” According to a 1915 story about her, after business hours she spent evenings “alone with her dog and her revolver.”

In the early 1920s Anna fell afoul of Smith’s good graces over issues such as the inn’s cleanliness and reports that Smith students were smoking, and maybe drinking and meeting boys there. In 1923, when the college still had the power to control which off-campus restaurants students could patronize, the RTI was removed from the approved list. The RTI could not go on and, at age 69, Anna was deprived of her income. She lived in Maryland for a while but died in NYC in 1924. For many years later the building was occupied by the Rose Tree Filling Station.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under proprietors & careers, tea shops, women