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Seniors yearn for a Steakburger, or fries, as Steak ‘n Shake’s future seems shaky

BENTON PARK WEST – Back in the 1950s, Carol Schultheis recalls, teenagers had more in mind than fries and steakburgers when they sat in their cars on the parking lot of the Steak ‘n Shake at Chippewa Street and Morganford Road.

“That’s where the high school kids would go to make out,” said Schultheis, who attended McKinley High School and lived in the Soulard neighborhood back then.

Today, Schultheis is the receptionist at the Five Star Center, 2832 Arsenal St., and one of several people at that senior citizens center who shared their memories about the old burger hangout.

Ever since the first Steak ‘n Shake opened in Normal, Ill., in 1934, happy customers lived for the chili and the thick shakes. Now, the company seems to be more shaky than a place for shakes.

Two of the three company restaurants on the south side have closed, joining several stores locally and a number nationally that have shuttered, at least for now.

In south St. Louis, the Steak ‘n Shakes at 4640 Chippewa St. and 7350 Gravois Ave. are closed, while the restaurant at 1239 Hampton Ave. remains open. According to a news release, the company has more than 600 restaurants across the country and the world.

Media reports have indicated that the company is closing stores that were not clean enough or where customer service was less than ideal. Company officials are seeking franchisees willing to invest $10,000 and give the company half their profits.

Steak ‘n Shake is in the process of franchising all of its company-operated restaurants through its franchise partnership program,” a company news release said. It directed those who wanted to be a franchise partner to visit http://www.steaknshakefranchise.com

The company’s website says Steak ‘n Shake is a wholly owned subsidiary of Biglari Holdings Inc. Efforts to reach someone from the national company or a representative of the store on Hampton were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, senior citizens at the Five Star Center recalled with fondness the way things once were at Steak ‘n Shake.

“The french fries are so skinny,” Robin Shaw, 63, noted. “I liked the shakes. It’s just those french fries are so skinny. They need to fatten ’em up.”

The skinny fries, milk shakes and steakburgers are part of a tradition begun by Gus Belt, the founder of Steak ‘n Shake. 

The company’s website claims that Belt had a way of proving his burgers were especially prime:

“He would wheel in a barrel of steaks (including round, sirloin, and T-bones) and grind the meat into burgers right in front of the guests. Hence arose the origin of our famous slogan, ‘In Sight It Must Be Right.’”

It was one of many things people liked about the restaurants.

“I had a cousin who used to work for them out there off of Riverview Circle,” said Mary Higgins, 69. “He used to bus the cars.”

“I loved their hamburgers, sodas, and their shakes, too,” she added.

Bill Kren, 81, didn’t eat at the restaurant while he was growing up on the south side, but did eat there after he moved to the Lindenwood Park neighborhood about two decades ago.

He’d get to the restaurant on Gravois some Sunday mornings after he attended 10 a.m. Mass at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, 3014 Oregon Ave.

“I’d usually get pancakes and a sundae,” Kren said. Or he might go during the week to the Chippewa site.

Tom Roche, 73, was sure which burger joint was the best.

“When I was a kid, and Steak ‘n Shake was making hamburgers, they had the best hamburgers in town,” Roche said. “The fries were OK, but the hamburgers were really good. I loved their vanilla shakes.”

He recalled, “My brother used to go out on dates, and he’d take his dates to Steak ‘n Shake.”

Queen Jones, 71, had nothing but the best to say about Steak ‘n Shake. 

“It was always a treat going there. It was like going to the moon,” she exclaimed.

“It was better than any hamburger we had in St. Louis,” said Jones, who lives in the Central West End. “The food was always good, and the shakes, oh my God.”

Will approving senior citizens such as Jones and others at the Five Star Center still be able to feast at Steak ‘n Shake?

That’s a question that, so far, doesn’t have an answer.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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