No wait staff in sight? It can’t be right…
Steak ‘N Shake gets rid of table service in favor of touch-screen kiosks
When Geneva Smith was mayor of Shelbyville, she personally called the headquarters of Steak ‘n Shake to try to convince them to open a location here. She was unsuccessful.
I didn’t hear about this until later, but I’d have cheered for it. I’ve loved Steak ‘n Shake since they first moved into Tennessee, and nothing would make me happier than having one here in town. The restaurant inspires a lot of loyalty. David Letterman was thrilled when Steak ‘n Shake opened up next to the Ed Sullivan Theatre. Steak ‘n Shake was a sponsor for the racing team Letterman co-owns.
The late Roger Ebert was another big fan, as you can read in this essay:
If I were on Death Row, my last meal would be from Steak ‘n Shake. 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. If the Pope were to ask where he could get a good plate of spaghetti in America, I would reply, “Your Holiness, have you tried the Chili Mac or the Chili 3-Ways?”
If you’re reading this in a part of the country that doesn’t have Steak ‘n Shake, you may be a bit confused. You see, Steak ‘n Shake does not sell steaks. Since the chain was founded in the 1930s, it has touted the quality of the cuts of beef it uses by calling its signature product a “steakburger.” The open kitchen, where you can clearly see the burgers being griddled, led to the slogan, “In sight, it must be right.”
But the company has struggled financially in the past few years — and apparently, part of that is due to labor costs. The company serves a slightly upscale version of a fast food menu, and many menu items are priced at close to fast-food levels. That makes it hard to afford the staffing model of a full-service restaurant.
The past year, the company has survived due to an increasing emphasis on drive-through and delivery service. Many of its dining rooms are still closed.
This past week, as you may have read, the restaurant announced that when those dining rooms reopen, they’ll be quite different. Instead of table service, there will be a touch-screen kiosk, like the ones McDonald’s was rolling out at all of its locations prior to the pandemic. You will order your meal at the kiosk, then grab a table, then pick up your meal from the kitchen once it’s ready. Unlike McDonald’s, there won’t even be an optional cash register for the kiosk-averse.
It just goes to show you how business can change. A few years ago, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the prospect of “fast-casual” restaurants like Chipotle and Five Guys posing a threat to fast food titans like McDonald’s. Now, Steak ‘n Shake, which sort of hovered somewhere between “fast-casual” and casual, is trying to become a fast food place.
It will be interesting to see how this works out as the year progresses and the restaurants re-open with the new business model.
One other change the company is making is one I can get behind: They’re continuing their push, started in 2018, for a single-franchise model and trying to sell many of their company-owned stores accordingly, including a very low initial investment for so-called “franchise partners.” Many other restaurant chains now prefer to deal with larger franchise owners, companies which operate multiple locations. But Steak ‘n Shake is, according to this article from a trade magazine, following the lead of Chick-fil-A, which has entrepreneurial, single-restaurant franchise owners who are encouraged to keep a close eye on their location and to have an active presence in the community.
I just hope they keep the 5-way chili.