The Untold Truth Of Steak 'N Shake

There are many who are flummoxed by the name of the Steak 'n Shake chain. Although the "Shake" part of the name is rather straightforward and self-explanatory, there are probably a number of people who likely believe that they're going to find T-bones and ribeyes at the restaurant, rather than the burgers for which Steak 'n Shake is known.

The restaurant was founded in 1934 by Gus Belt in Normal, Illinois. Belt set his sights on procuring the best quality of meat for the burgers he served his customers, so he used prime steaks to create his burger meat — hence the use of the term "steakburger," which was later shortened to "steak" in the restaurant title (via Steak 'N Shake). To prove that he was truly using the best quality for his customers, Belt would bring in a barrel of steaks in front of his customers and turn them into ground beef right in front of their eyes. According to the restaurant, this is where their slogan, "In Sight, It Must Be Right" came from.

Steak 'n Shake's early days

However, Belt's first foray into fast food wasn't actually burgers — it was fried chicken which he and his wife Edith sold from a gas station (via Thrillist). Belt sold the gas and his wife took care of the chicken.

Beer sold particularly well at the gas station, and when Prohibition hit, their sales plummeted, prompting Belt to consider a new line of work. While he realized that fried chicken shacks were common in his region of Illinois, the state was lacking a good burger joint, so Belt decided to start his own. Belt really leaned into the idea of "fast" food, encouraging his workers to have the burger to the customer five minutes after the order was placed. To encourage turnover, he wanted each customer to be finished with their meal in 20 minutes. In order to achieve both of these goals, Belt told his workers he wanted to see them walking at a "swift trot."

The chain changes hands

After the death of Gus Belt, his wife ran the chain until 1969, when she sold the restaurant to Longchamps, Inc., which moved the headquarters to Indianapolis (via Funding Universe). Ownership changed hands a number of times, and in the 2000s, the chain was allegedly three months away from insolvency. However, new ownership was announced in 2008 when entrepreneur Sardar Biglari took the helm (via National Restaurant News). Before he took over, the company was losing $100,000 daily, and under Biglari's management, the company experienced 24 quarters of increased in-store sales.

The restaurant has been with us now for close to a century, and as a result, it's garnering some awards and prestige that come with being a slice of Americana. The Steak 'n Shake location in Springfield, Missouri on route 66 was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Its long-held reputation it has established for itself in the fast-food industry has influenced newcomers on the scene to try their hand at opening a restaurant as well. The founder of Shake Shack, for example, cited an experience at a Steak 'n Shake as a young man prompted him to open his own burger chain.

International expansion of Shake Shack

It's consistently rated as one of the best restaurant chains in the country with average earnings of $1.7 million at every store. And although it's one of the most recognizable American restaurant name brands, Steak 'n Shake has also made forays into international markets, specifically in the Middle East and Europe. In 2013, the company announced plans to open 50 locations in Saudi Arabia (via PR Newswire). At the time, they noted commitments to open 40 other Middle Eastern locations in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, although the location in Kuwait appears to have closed in 2017 (via Rinnoo). 

The first locations in Europe opened in 2014, in Cannes, France, and Ibiza, Spain (via USA Today and Ibiza-Spotlight). Steak 'n Shake's move abroad is viewed as part of a larger move by American companies moving abroad to capitalize on international consumers' tastes for famous American brands.