"I've been waiting five years for this!" screeched a woman who couldn't stop trembling. And Jeremy Smallwood was grinning from ear to ear, despite the fact that he had been sitting idle in his car for more than two hours, patiently waiting for the snake of cars ahead of him to inch their way toward the drive-thru. "I figured it was going to be like this," admitted an undeterred Smallwood, who knew exactly what he planned to order: two Frisco Melts. "I get them every single time. They're ridiculously good."
And that was the overall sentiment at the highly anticipated opening of Steak 'n Shake, the iconic, nationwide burger emporium that got its start in Normal, Illinois in 1934 and opened its first Denver store at 10 a.m. on Thursday in Centennial.
"A woman who told me that she'd been waiting thirty years -- thirty years! -- for a Steak 'n Shake in Denver started crying as soon as she got here," said Mark Clark, a partner in the Steak 'n Shake empire, who was standing outside at 2 p.m., surveying the controlled mayhem. "This is one of the busiest openings that Steak 'n Shake has ever had."
And that's just the beginning of the burger chain's expansion into the Denver market. "We're planning to open five Steak 'n Shakes around the city," revealed Clark, who's already signed a lease on a second space at Santa Fe and Hampden, in the River Point Parkway Shopping Center, anchored by Target and Costco. "We're breaking ground on that store on November 28, and we'll open in March or April." And by the end of 2013, three additional Steak 'n Shakes will have opened in Denver.
"The response has been amazing, and it's great watching the smiles on everyone's faces -- that's the best part," Clark told me. And, admittedly, the majority of people who swarmed the 96-seat joint seemed damn happy -- and I didn't hear one person mourn for an In-N-Out Burger, which is often compared to Steak 'n Shake. "We're definitely a fair comparison to In-N-Out, and we're both legendary, classic bands," said Clark, but the primary difference, he stressed, resides in the fact that unlike In-N-Out, Steak 'n Shake is a full-service restaurant with servers and hosts. "There aren't a lot of burger places like this around the country -- places that are full-service, have a drive-thru and cook their burgers to order -- and definitely not in Denver."
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I hadn't been to a Steak 'n Shake in years -- not since I lived in Chicago in the nineties -- but I've been to In-N-Out more times than I care to admit, thanks to a long stint in California, and while Midwesterners are fiercely loyal to Steak 'n Shake, I'm going to have to disagree. I like Steak 'n Shake (especially the hand-dipped shakes), but the burger -- I had the original double 'n cheese -- left me wistful for a double-double, animal-style. "It's a culture thing that goes beyond the food," remarked Clark. And the women sitting next to me agreed. "If you're from the Midwest, you're a die-hard Steak 'n Shaker; if you're from the West Coast, you're an In-N-Outer."
In any case, I went, I conquered and I ate. Herewith, day one of Steak 'n Shake.
There were lines out the door and at least fifty cars in the drive-thru by the time Steak 'n Shake hit its lunch rush. The original double 'n cheese steakburger with all the toppings. Chicago-style steak frank heaped with diced onions, neon green sweet relish, mustard, tomatoes, pickles and sport peppers. The Frisco melt with American and Swiss cheeses and "secret" Steakburger sauce. The Steakburger chili-spaghetti supreme. A sampling of hand-dipped milkshakes. It was a nonstop marathon for the kitchen crew.