If you don’t have a Steak ‘n Shake near you, you’re really missing out. In fact, you might even consider moving. The fast-ish food joint specializes in moth-watering hamburgers — they call them "steakburgers" — and is one of the fastest-growing restaurants in the United States, with over 550 locations in the U.S. They offer both table service and a drive-thru, and the burgers are really on the tip of the iceberg as far as what you can order (seriosuly, they have the best milkshakes on the planet). If you think this is just a new place that popped up out of nowhere, you’re thinking of a different place with "shake" in their name. Steak ‘n Shake has been around since the 1930s, though weren’t as widely known until fairly recently. So what took them so long to make an impact nationally, and what else don’t you know about this popular burger joint?
The start of the slogan
Steak ‘n Shake founder Gus Belt was a bit of showman. He also had a keen understanding of what people wanted: fresh food. Belt owned a gas station that also served chicken (it was the 1930s… just go with it) called Shell’s Chicken. Rather than compete with the plethora of chicken joints in the Normal, Illinois area, he decided to try his hand at that newfangled food — the hamburger.
Belt opened Steak ‘n Shake in 1934, and used "In sight it must be right" as the original slogan. But Gus wasn’t just spouting slogans, he meant it. To prove how fresh his steakburgers were, he would truck a wheelbarrow of meats through the store — in sight of the customers — and grind the meat right in front of them. Just in case folks hadn’t heard how tempting a fresh ground burger could be, he also put his milkshake machines in the windows to entice those driving by.
They have their own language
Another Steak ‘n Shake slogan flashes in red at every location. It looks like a tricky tongue-twister: Takhomasak. So where did Belt come up with this? Rockybilt, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado, founded in the 1920s, used the slogan "TAK-HOMA-SAK." Say it out loud: Take home a sack, referring to taking a to-go order. This was common phrasing in those days, and many restaurants, including The White Spot, a competitor of Steak ‘n Shake in the early days, suggested to "Buy ’em by the sack." Belt just took out the dashes and started using "Takhomasak" as their slogan.
They tried to ditch table service
It’s not a stretch to say the reason there’s probably a Steak ‘n Shake near you (except you Normal, Illinois readers) is because in the early 1980s they returned to their roots and became a sit down restaurant — silverware and all. Part of the reason chains work is consistency. If you go to a sit-down and it turns into counter service, you might do a double-take.
A Steak ‘n Shake in Texarkana — the Texas one, not the Arkansas one — had a little trouble with service and reviews. Basically, the reviews said the service sucked. So, they just decided to do away with table service. They professionally explained it as, "Just like Burger King or McDonald’s," you walk up to the counter, order, sit down, and wait for your order to be called. After the switch, people were not happy — to the point of getting the pitchforks. Franchise owner Rita Morgan explained that she did it to speed up service.
Speed has always been a problem
So how long is the wait at Steak ‘n Shake? If you’re in a hurry, Steak ‘n Shake probably isn’t your best bet. When the steakburger finally hit New York, people eager to eat what the rest of the country eats found it takes too long. Turns out, the city that does things in a New York minute doesn’t have time for a 25-minute wait at lunch. The same problem that caused the Texarkana Steak ‘n Shake to try counter service befalls most locations. There are horror stories on the internet of two-hour visits and 25-minute drive-thru experiences. There are no published average wait times available, but according to most online reviews, you better plan on waiting for a while.
There was a lawsuit over menu prices
In an attempt to keep up with the Joneses and all their $5 price points, Steak ‘n Shake got into the game by offering certain meals at $4. It wasn’t just a few items either, it’s practically the whole menu. Obviously that cuts into profitability, but at the same time if you’re getting people into your restaurant specifically for the $4 meal, $4 is more than zero dollars. But not every restaurant saw it that way.
In 2013 in Colorado, customers that looked for the $4 menu were surprised to see it was a $5 menu — or even more. That wasn’t the only market; 50 franchises banded together to fight the low-price menu, citing sales decreases estimated to be $900,000 a year. The franchises accused parent company Biglari of bullying the price point onto franchises. Some franchises settled with the parent corporation — although the terms were not disclosed. Others, like in Colorado, were found in violation of overcharging customers by false advertising. It remains a touchy subject for franchises.
It’s changed hands — a lot
Belt expanded his business around the greater Illinois area and kept the company cooking for 20 years. He didn’t live long enough to see it fully expand though — he died of a heart ailment at age 59, just outside of St. Louis. The company went to his wife Edith, and she kept things afloat for 15 more years before selling the 50 or so Steak ‘n Shakes to a company called Longchamps in 1969. Two years later, Franklin Corporation gobbled up the chain. They expanded the company even further, and by 1975 Steak ‘n Shake had 130 locations.
In 1981 E.W. Kelley and associates purchased Steak ‘n Shake. They took a look at the history of the company and brought it back to its roots — more or less. The chain took on more of Belt’s original concept; a sit-down diner with fresh-cooked meals. You can make the case that it was the constant franchise turnover that expanded the growth — everyone who bought the chain tried to make it bigger and there’s no telling where Steak ‘n Shake would have gone if it remained family-owned and just in the Midwest.
It inspired Shake Shack
If you’re a die-hard fan of Shake Shack, you have Steak ‘n Shake to thank for your favorite spot. According to Thrillist, Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer told The New York Times that his career path (and love of food) was started with a visit to the Steak ‘n Shake in St. Louis when he was just a teen. I’m sure Steak n’ Shake isn’t thrilled about inspiring the competition, but they can probably take it as a compliment.
There’s a really big burger
Some restaurants can’t help but to give you enough food to stunt your growth. The shock value meal — something large enough that it drives TV hosts to try and eat it — exists in many popular restaurants. If you think the classic Steak ‘n Shake is above that, they’re not. The 7×7 is exactly what it sounds like: Seven patties, seven pieces of cheese. That’s one full pound of burger! It’s advertised as a ‘Late night menu’ item (read, when you’re intoxicated), but any Steak ‘n Shake will make it for you, anytime.
As you can guess, it’s not exactly the same as eating a salad — 1330 calories are packed into that monster, which isn’t that bad when you think about it. But the 98 grams of fat and almost 4500 mg of sodium will keep your cardiologist in business. If your thing is watching people stuff their head holes with food, there are plenty of videos of people eating a 7×7. Some take it on like a traditional burger, while others peal it away and eat it one layer at a time. There’s no wrong way to eat it — providing you hit the elliptical for two hours when you’re done.
Roger Ebert was their biggest fan
You might like Steak ‘n Shake. You might even love Steak ‘n Shake, but you, friend, are no Roger Ebert. The famous movie critic gave the restaurant two thumbs up and waxed poetically in a prose usually reserved for an Oscar-winning film. He said if the Pope asked for a good spaghetti joint, he’d recommend the Chili Mac or Chili 3-Ways – both Steak n’ Shake specialties.
His love affair with the burger joint started on the campus of the University of Illinois when he was just 3 or 4 years old, and continued throughout his life. Ebert wrote in 2009 that if he were on death row, his last meal would be from Steak ‘n Shake. He finally succumbed to cancer in 2013 after a lengthy battle — let’s hope he had one more steakburger for the road.
They had racial discrimination allegations
The important thing to remember here is that despite being a chain that falls into the fast food category, Steak ‘n Shake isn’t fast. Full disclosure — the last time I ate at a Steak ‘n Shake, it took an hour to get in and out of there. To expect super-speedy service is asking a lot, but you should at least get handed a menu.
In 2015, four African-American customers entered a Steak ‘n Shake in Mount Juliet, Tennessee and sat down. And waited. And waited. No drink order, no menus… nothing. After 25 minutes the four walked out and didn’t even get a "see ya’ll later!" from the staff. When a local news station interviewed other African-American customers of the same restaurant, they didn’t have any complaints. Still, this isn’t the first time racism allegations were lobbed at Steak ‘n Shake — a former employee accused a Cleveland store of racism, too.
Their tiniest burgers are the worst
Let’s say you’re looking to cut back a little and you go with one of their mini burgers. Steak n’ Shake calls them "Shooters," and they’ll certainly leave a scar. They’re not as big as the standard burger, but they are loaded with sodium. A shooter with A-1 and cheese packs more sodium than a standard burger, by a lot. The odds of eating just one are pretty slim so your basic Shooter order will immediately take your salt intake up a few notches. They do offer them in some local grocer’s freezer sections, just in case you can’t make it to the local feed store to pick up a salt lick.