Cafe Society

At Colorado's first Steak 'n Shake, a lawsuit may be the least of the problems

When I walked into the Steak 'n Shake at 8271 South Quebec Street -- the first Steak 'n Shake to open in Colorado -- I was greeted by a host stand holding a dirty tray with trash on it, with no host in sight. And my visit only got worse from there. Steak 'n Shake Enterprises Inc. and Steak 'n Shake LLC are suing the local owners of the two Steak 'n Shake restaurants in Colorado, this one included, asking the judge to prevent them from operating the spots as Steak 'n Shakes and citing franchise-agreement failures.

Franchise agreement failures or no, the Centennial Steak 'n Shake is definitely failing customers big time with horrible service and sub-par food.

See also: -Behold...Denver's first Steak 'n Shake! -A second Steak 'n Shake opens in Sheridan -Ho boy! Denver is getting a Steak 'n Shake!

I stopped by the Centennial Steak 'n Shake early on a Monday evening, and after being greeted by nothing more than that cluttered, dirty host stand, I stood around for a while until a noticeably harried bus boy with a filthy apron hurriedly sat me in a small alcove in the back. Since there was no sign of a server for about ten minutes, I had plenty of time to look around the dining room.

Wadded-up wrappers and piles of food waste littered the floor. The occupants of the two-top next to me were pretty pissed that no one had brought them drinks, and they were ready to walk out. A party of six next to them had waited quite a while for their dinner, and then gotten all but one entrée. While a woman waited for the missing chicken salad, her companions finished their meals -- hope they shared some fries with her.

My server looked more nervous and harangued than the busser, and after taking my drink order -- a tropical banana shake for me, and a Hershey's Special Dark chocolate shake for my dining companion -- she disappeared into the ether. Twenty-five minutes later, a different server brought us two shakes -- a strawberry and a Heath bar -- and we told him they weren't ours. Ten minutes after that, our server brought us two shakes: the exact same ones we'd sent away before, only now wilted and melty. She re-took our shake order that she'd either screwed up or forgotten to write down the first time, and we ordered dinner before she disappeared again: an original Double 'n Cheese Steakburger with fries and one of SnS's new Jalapeno Crunch chicken sandwiches.

While we waited, I shared some of the Steak 'n Shake legal story with my companion. Local franchise owners Christopher Baerns, Larry Baerns, Kathryn Baerns and the companies they used to buy and run the restaurants (Globex Co. LLC, Springfield Downs LLC and Control LLC) are being sued in U.S. District Court by Steak 'n Shake LLC for, according to the Denver Business Journal, "breach of contract, trademark infringement and unfair competition." The parent company wants the Baernses to "de-identify" their stores and send back everything associated with SnS, and then pay unspecified damages of more than $75,000.

Steak 'n Shake was founded in Illinois in 1934 by Gus Belt, and gained popularity because of Belt's hand-dipped shakes and steakburgers, freshly-ground from T-bone, sirloin and round steaks. Today the chain is headquartered in Indiana and its 508 restaurants -- including 94 franchised locations -- are concentrated in the Midwest and Southern U.S. I grew up in Missouri, and was as big a fan of Steak 'n Shake as anyone. The brand is still very much beloved, even if the steak has been replaced with regular hamburger meat and the shakes are no longer hand-dipped. At least, not at the Centennial spot.

Finally, after 45 minutes, the server brought two correct shakes -- but they weren't worth the wait. The Hershey's Special Dark was neither special nor dark chocolate, the tropical banana tasted like an orange Julius, and both were disappointingly thin. We abandoned the shakes after a few sips and sat back to wait for our food -- another fifteen minutes. In the interim, our server apologized profusely and admitted she was new. That was forgivable, but as we looked around the dining room it was clear that this place had bigger problems than a new employee.

The store appeared to be grossly understaffed -- the manager was doing double-time helping the cooks get the plates out, and going on an apology tour throughout the dining room, trying to say-sorries to every table that hadn't gotten food or drinks. He was so busy with the rest of the room that he didn't make it back to our section. Which was too bad, because when our two sandwiches did arrive, mine was chilly and the other one wasn't a chicken sandwich, but instead an unidentified burger. We sent it back -- my companion cannot eat beef for medical reasons -- and I shared my fries while examining my own steakburger. This was not the Steak 'n Shake burger I remembered so fondly The bun was greasy and stiff, and the patties so thin and full of holes that I could have dipped them into dish soap and water and blown through them to make bubbles.

The chicken sandwich never did show up; finally my companion just gave up and excused himself to go to the car and play Candy Crush on his phone. Meanwhile, I hunted down the manager to mention the missing sandwich. When he and the server asked which kind of chicken we'd ordered -- the spicy or the grilled -- I had to tell them "Neither!" and remind them of their new special.

Then I did something I almost never do: I actually asked the manager what in the name of little green apples and doodlebugs was going on with the restaurant. I calmly and politely mentioned the mess, the confusion and the seriously long food times, and he stared at me blankly, offering no response other than to ask whether I wanted him to box up the sandwich when it was done. I told him that since it wasn't started there was no need, he told me that he was comping the bill, and I told him, "Good luck."

Does the franchise's legal troubles have anything to do with the chaos I found? The Baernses claim the attempt by corporate to terminate the franchise agreement is a retaliatory reaction against the Denver franchise owners for "daring to raise questions about the fairness of the corporate policies." They say they should be able to set their own menu prices due to higher-than-average food costs here in Denver compared to other parts of the country, and they claim their prices and menus have been approved by corporate.

Clearly, there's a whole lot shaking at Colorado's Steak 'n Shakes. But the worst legal messes in the world can't explain a dirty dining room and an inability to get an order right. If this Centennial store doesn't improve, a lot of Coloradans are going to wonder why anyone in this state was ever excited to finally get a Steak 'n Shake.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz