From wholesome family dinners to 4 a.m. pit stops, Steak 'n Shake has been serving up all-American fare at all hours to generations of hungry diners. But there’s much more to this throwback chain than hand-dipped shakes, tasty steakburgers and those nifty paper hats.
1. It started as a gas station serving fried chicken and beer.
Founder Gus Belt and his wife, Edith, feeling squeezed by the Great Depression, began offering fried chicken, fries and coleslaw at their Normal, Illinois Shell station for $.45. Beer was just $.09. After the town council voted 2 to 1 to ban the sale of alcohol, the Belts decided to open a burger restaurant, and in 1934 Steak 'n Shake was born.
2. The founder was a stickler for food safety before that was a thing.
Back in the '30s, there were no uniform health codes, and hamburgers were widely (and justifiably) viewed as low-quality fare. To quell customers’ concerns, Gus Belt created an open kitchen so they could watch their steakburgers being cooked—a design that still exists today in Steak 'n Shake restaurants, reflecting Belt’s motto, "In Sight It Must Be Right."
3. He would also grind a barrel full of meat in front of diners.
When the restaurant was busy, Belt liked to roll a barrel full of t-bones, sirloins and round steaks into the restaurant and grind everything in full view of patrons. Sadly, this practice does not still exist at Steak 'n Shake, or at any other American restaurant.
4. Gus wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
According to Robert Cronin, former Steak 'n Shake CEO and author of Selling Steakburgers, Belt used to go through the restaurant’s trash and returned plates to see what customers weren’t eating. He used his disgusting findings to further hone the menu.
5. After Gus died, his wife ran the company for 15 years.
Gus Belt died in 1954, leaving Edith to run the company until 1969, when she sold her stake in the restaurant—which by then numbered 51 locations—to Longchamps, Inc. for a cool $17 million.
6. Steak 'n Shake almost became another fast food restaurant.
Under Longchamps, Steak 'n Shake began streamlining food preparation (it made shakes from a mix instead of using ice cream, for instance) to bring down costs and to better compete with popular fast food restaurants. After Longchamps sold to Indiana-based Franklin Corporation in 1971, CEO Robert Cronin took the chain back to its roots and introduced menu items like baked beans and cottage cheese.
7. Its most successful owner also gave the world Cool Whip and A1 Steak Sauce.
Steak 'n Shake struggled during the '70s, when fast food dominated the American restaurant scene. In 1981, the Franklin Corporation sold the chain to Consolidated Products, whose president, food industry veteran Ed Kelley, had overseen the introduction of Tang, Klondike bars, Cool Whip, A1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon. Under Consolidated’s management, Steak 'n Shake doubled its number of restaurants by the late '90s.
8. Roger Ebert was a huge fan.
The longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist had his first restaurant meal there as a kid (steakburger, fries and a Coke) and claimed unwavering devotion the rest of his life. He gushed about the chain in a 2009 blog post: "If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice were up to me, it would be Steak 'n Shake—and they would be delighted."
9. One of its locations is a historic landmark.
A Springfield, Missouri location that sits along the former Route 66 was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Built in the early '60s, it still retains most of its original design, including a curb service window and bright neon sign.
10. The company almost went bankrupt.
After years of losing money, the chain was sold in 2008 to Biglari Holdings, which promptly lowered prices and made Steak 'n Shake a recession-era darling. In a recent earnings report, Biglari claimed the company was 90 days away from insolvency when it took over.
11. Biglari is also the guy who now owns Maxim.
12. Steak 'n Shake has a racecar, and it's co-sponsored by Maxim and owned by David Letterman.
The burger joint is the primary sponsor of the No. 15 Indy car this year, marking the first time that the Indianapolis-based company has been involved in the Indy racing scene. And that car is co-owned by the former Late Show host, who is an Indianapolis native and longtime racing fan.
13. Steak 'n Shake is going upscale and international.
14. Its seven-patty burger inspires equal parts awe and disgust.
Two years ago, the chain introduced a 1,330-calorie beef monstrosity to its late night menu: the 7X7 Burger, which sells for $7.77. Reactions have ranged from reverential to horrified to, predictably, eating contests.