Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Restaurant Review- Steak n Shake ENDANGERED CONCEPT!

Chain restaurants.  Imagine the early days, 1927.  The idea of wanting to have a consistent meal in different places must have appealed to such a small segment of people that Steak n Shake founder Gus Belt was really going out on a limb with the idea of a system of restaurants.  But in fact, the same issues plagued the traveler then as now. Consistent, safe, quality eating on the road is not something one can take for granted. One of the mottos of the chain- "In sight, it must be right." is testimony to the need Steak n Shake was meeting.  Today the chain is one of the big 3 restaurant chains of the dawn of an American invention- eating on the road- Howard Johnson's and White Castle as the others.

The idea of a steakburger is genius.  The trimmings that make up hamburger come from T-bone, sirloin and strip steak. Much of it was low cost by product, before the popularity of ground beef.  The original intent of the slogan was to allay concerns about the composition of ground beef, a novelty at the time.  Meat was ground in sight in each restaurant.  Too bad that today it refers only to the cook line being in sight.  But thanks to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the USDA, we take meat quality for granted.  Today your steakburger contains tasty meat, and nothing you don't want to know about.

The stores reflect the checkered past of this chain legacy.   At one time the decor was the epitome of its era, modern and sleek, like the design inspiration seen in the custom made cars of the 30's.  It aged well through the war, and the boom in travel that followed.  But during the 70's and 80's it kind of lost it's way, and in the 90's, though there was money for expansion, there was no solid thinking about what to build, how to transition the concept economically.  Steak n Shakes are big, ugly boxes outside, with awful awnings sitting in big black asphalt fields.  Inside, the decor works very hard to make sure you know you are in a diner.  Too hard.  Some of the cues are cute, like the tiny tiles in the floor.  Most are just ugly.  White, black and red keep hitting you in the eye.  Harsh, cold parodies of what the chain once was.  

Today Steak n Shake's menu is priced at the high end of fast food, except for the hand dipped shakes and malts which are higher than their soft-serve cousins, but lower than what you pay in an ice cream shop.  Food is served by servers, on plates.  If the decor was not so cheap and gimmicky, it would seem like a diner or coffee shop, where it should compete.  Confused?  You bet.  That's what happens when a concept starts reeling out of control.  Sitting in the restaurant, one can sense the turmoil of the boardroom that the hostile takeover by a "value investor" has wreaked.  Think Gordon Gecko, trying to maximize his return by franchising a broken system as fast as he can.

But I digress- back to the experience.  Servers are the bottom of the serving ladder, not earning their way through college, but high school.  Too bad.  These folks can do a good job, but are far from consistent.  Cooks are waiting for the big job opportunity at Denny's.  The result is inconsistency that can be fatal.  When they are right, the Steakburger rivals In N Out.  Too bad the shoe string fries are frozen.  They are good, but could be great.  The beans and chili are good, not great.  The malts- are very good.

This is a concept that is out of balance, and there is no outlook for improvement.  I say get in there when you can, hope for the best, and if you are lucky, you get a meal that is quite good, and endangered.

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