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