If there's anything that causes more food arguments in the state of Iowa, it has to be Maid-Rites. Maid-Rites are, quite simply, loose meat beef sandwiches served on buns. It's like a hamburger, only the meat is steamed in bins and falls out on wax paper as you eat them. In the 1900's, nearly every town of any size in Iowa had a Maid-Rite and natives from each of those towns will swear that their local Maid-Rite is the best. I grew up in Newton, IA and the oldest continuous Maid-Rite-style shop is located there. And while the sign out front still says "Maid-Rite", the official name of the place is now Mr. Dan's Sandwich Shop. But to the locals in Newton, it's still the Maid-Rite.
The Newton Maid-Rite has a long and interesting history behind it. Here it is -
After he opened the original Maid-Rite sandwich shop in Muscatine in 1925, Fred Angell was looking for a location to put a second restaurant. He settled upon the Central Iowa town of Newton, home of the burgeoning Maytag Washer Company. Fred figured the workers would love his loose-meat sandwiches.
The Newton Maid-Rite opened in 1926 and it was originally known as the Maid-Rite Hamburg. The original building was a stucco and wood structure with two entrances on the front side. To get from one side of the counter to the other, patrons would have to walk out the front door on the one side and re-enter in the door on the opposite side. There was a wooden sign out front cut in the form of a lady with a broom. I believe this may have been the Maid-Rite Maiden that Angell's wife used as the first logo of Maid-Rite shops. Angell ran the Newton location for six months before selling it to Gus Foster.
Mr. Foster ran the Maid-Rite in Newton until 1937 when he sold it to Ethel Shelley, who was described as a "colorful lady." Some older people in Newton remember Ms. Shelley and fondly remember her running the shop in the late 30's into the early 40's.
Also in 1937, two years after franchising the Maid-Rite name (the first food franchise in the Midwest), Fred Angell decreed that all Maid-Rite's add a seasoning to their meat. Ms. Shelley and Cliff Taylor, who founded and owned the Marshalltown Maid-Rite location since 1928, decided that they didn't want to use the seasoning. I understand they fought Angell who finally backed down on his commandment. Actually, I believe every Maid-Rite that was franchised after 1937 had to use the seasoning, but the Newton Maid-Rite and Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown were "grandfathered" in to not having to use the seasonings.
In 1944, Cliff Taylor passed away and his son, Don, took over Taylor's Maid-Rite. Don Taylor then bought the Newton Maid-Rite from Ethel Shelley. A young man by the name of Quentin "Bud" Holland who worked for the Taylor family in Marshalltown was asked to move to Newton to run the operation there. Bud and his wife, Marty, moved to Newton where they raised two girls, Mardy and Chris. Bud and Marty Holland eventually purchased the Maid-Rite in Newton from Don Taylor in 1958 and promptly renamed it Bud's Maid-Rite.
In 1962, the front half of the Maid-Rite in Newton was reconstructed. While it was being built, patrons ate in a screened in room in the back of the building. The locals referred to it as "the shack in the back." After the renovation, it became the present day building with a single entrance in the front.
In 1964, Mardy Holland was a junior in high school and her younger sister, Chris, was a sophomore. Bud and Marty decided to add a room in the back of the building. This became sort of the defacto "teen center" in Newton. It had a serving counter in back, a jukebox and booths for the teen-aged kids to hang out. With sisters who were Mardy and Chris' age, I remember this part of the Maid-Rite very vividly. It was the place to go if you were a teenager in Newton in the mid to late 60's.
In 1970, Bud and Marty retired and sold the Maid-Rite to Dan and Pam Holtkamp. The Holtkamp's had moved to Newton in 1968 as Dan had taken a job as an accountant for the old Parson's Manufacturing. They fell in love with Newton and wanted to make the town their permanent home to raise their kids. The Holtkamp's jumped head first into the business. Dan had a degree in business and one of the golden rules in business school is not to tamper with success. The Holtkamp's did little to the Maid-Rite after they took over and the transition was smooth. In fact, for years people still referred to the Maid-Rite as just "Bud's".
About the biggest change the Holtkamp's did was to take out the teen room in the back, change that into a full service seating area and open a back entrance to the restaurant. They also put in a drive-up window for people to get their Maid-Rites, fries and shakes. The Holtkamp's also introduced a smaller Maid-Rite - the Joey Rite (named after their son) - for smaller appetites. The Danielle Special (named after their daughter) was a Joey Rite, small soft drink and ice cream. The Holtkamp's also put in the Jaarsma Connection, a small counter in the back of the restaurant that served fresh Dutch pastries from the Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, IA.
Today, the back room has pencil sketches on the wall above the booths of the four owners of the Maid-Rite since late 1926 (below left).
One thing that Dan did not do was change the way the meat was prepared at the Maid-Rite. He told me one time that he doesn't use any seasonings in his meats, the way his predecessors did in their day. And the key is that he buys his meat from the same supplier who Bud Holland was using for years before Dan became the owner. Dan continues to grind his own beef in the basement. The taste of the Newton Maid-Rite comes from the old steamer that is used to cook the meat (above right). The steamer has been internally seasoned over the decades that it's been used to make countless Maid-Rites. The only thing that is added is a little bit of salt added to the top of the meat before the Maid-Rite is wrapped up in wax paper.
In 1982, the Angell family sold the Maid-Rite franchises to a company in Des Moines. The Maid-Rite franchise company was eventually bought by a gentleman by the name of Bradley Burt who insisted that all Maid-Rite franchises have uniformity in the way they prepared their sandwiches. He wanted - no, demanded - that all Maid-Rites buy their meat from his company and prepare it in a specific way. Dan Holtkamp and Don Short, the grandson of Cliff Taylor, resisted the changes and were allowed to continue to do business they way they had.
However, in 2006, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals decided that the bins that the older Maid-Rites around the state used were deemed to be "unhealthy" as they allowed for the cooking of raw meat next to fully cooked meat. This is a process that Maid-Rites have used for well over 70 years, and they usually have a stainless steel partition in the bin to keep the cooked meat from the raw meat. Once the raw meat is cooked through, the partition is removed and the meat is all mixed together. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten sick from this type of cooking method.
Both Short and Holtkamp said that the changeover to new steamers would be cost ineffective for their businesses and Short led the appeal to the state of Iowa to overturn the ruling. However, it was determined that the original Maid-Rites were in violation of the administrative guidelines set forth by the Iowa Department of Inspections. But, both the Newton Maid-Rite and Taylor's in Marshalltown use the same old steamers and cooking process, so I'm guessing they were able to beat the ruling somewhere along the way.
The biggest change happened a few years ago when Dan Holtkamp silently changed the name of his shop to "Mr. Dan's Sandwich Shop". For years, Holtkamp's workers referred to him as "Mr. Dan" and the nickname stuck. Dan is still running the place daily, his big smile and friendly demeanor greeting customers as they come in. Dan told me, "You know, I'm 72 years old and I've owned this place for 41 years. If I'm able to - and I plan on doing it - in five more years I'll have owned this business in the same amount of years that all three of the previous owners owned it." I'm not betting against him.
Sadly, one of the biggest changes to Dan's business has been the downturn thanks to the closing of Maytag in 2007. Lunch time at the Newton Maid-Rite was an adventure and scene of much jockeying of seats throughout the place trying to get a Maid-Rite and get back to work at the office or factory. I learned a long time ago that you just don't go to Maid-Rite between noon and 1 p.m. on weekdays. Unfortunately, that isn't the case any longer. Business at the Newton Maid-Rite is still steady, but it's not at the same level that it was years ago.
During Newton High School reunion weekends, the Maid-Rite is overrun by former residents back in town for their class reunions. The blackboard on the east side wall has been there for years announcing food specials, game scores, events and even allowing patrons to post their own notes on the board. The menu boards on both walls, I have to believe, are the same ones that have been in the place since Bud Holland refurbished the place in 1962. The front part of the Newton Maid-Rite hasn't changed much - if any - since the building was reconstructed 50 years ago.
I was passing through Newton on my way home recently and decided to stop in and have a Maid-Rite. Actually, I like their Cheese-rites - basically a Maid-Rite with a slice of American cheese on top. And I love to drink milk with my Maid-Rites and/or Cheese-rites. Don't know where I got that from, but I always order a large milk when I have a Maid-Rite.
The Cheese-rites are wrapped in an outer wrap with yellow stripes to denote the cheese on the sandwich. When the Cheese-rite is unwrapped, the excess meat falls out. A spoon is provided to pick up the loose meat on the wrapper. In the winter time, the Maid-Rite also has chili and it's good chili. What I like to do is get a bowl of chili and pour the excess meat into the chili after I have the Cheese-rite.
Some people will ask for the Maid-Rite/Cheese-Rite moist. I like mine a little dry, just as ordered. Like the original Maid-Rites, everything is mustard, pickle and onion. I put a little ketchup and, surprisingly, a little more salt on my Cheese-Rites before I eat them. I hardly EVER put salt on anything, but I like my Cheese-rites salty. The buns that Dan uses are pretty basic, but it's never really been about the bun at Maid-Rite all the way back to the day of Bud Holland. The meat is the thing that keeps bringing me back to the Newton Maid-Rite.
It's sort of like the people in the Quad Cities who grew up eating Harris Pizza and thinking that it is the best pizza in the world. Being from Newton, I think the Maid-Rites from the Newton Maid-Rite are the best in the world. I will admit there are others who think Taylor's in Marshalltown is better. Of course, there are thousands of natives of Ottumwa who think the Canteen's at the Canteen Lunch are the best. People in Sioux City think the "taverns" at Miles Inn are the best. But I could easily be accused of being provincial when it comes to the Newton Maid-Rite, or more correctly Mr. Dan's Sandwich Shop. It's the oldest and, I think, the best.
Let the debate continue...