Late last year on a trip to Kansas City, I found out about the Kansas City Casual Food Chowdown contest that was sponsored by the Kansas City Star in 2011. I was somewhat surprised to see one of the finalists for the Best Burger category was a local area chain that I had known about for years by the name of Winstead's. I had driven past a Winstead's location many, many times over the past 30+ years during all my travels to Kansas City, but I had never stopped in to have one of their burgers. Since it finished second to the great burger that is served over at Westport Flea Market, I thought I'd better find out what Kansas Citians were talking about.
Winstead's has a very long and interesting history behind them. The first Winstead's opened as a root beer/hamburger stand in Springfield, IL in 1936. Kathryn Winstead pioneered what was one of the first drive-in restaurants in the U.S. where people would back into a stall, flash their lights and a car hop would come out to take their order. Burgers made from ground steak, flattened on a flat top grill were a favorite for many people in Central Illinois.
Around 1938, Kathryn Winstead's brother, Jack, opened a Winstead's location in nearby Jacksonville, IL. A sister of Kathryn and Jack's opened a location in Fort Wayne, IN, and another sister, Nelle, opened a location in Sedalia, MO. Nelle married a local Sedalia banker by the name of Gordon Montgomery and the two began to talk to older sister Kathryn about opening a location in the Country Club Plaza development area in Kansas City, MO.
When the Winstead sisters found a location around 47th and Main in the new Country Club Plaza development, they were hesitant to open a burger joint because Kansas City was run by local political machine boss Tom Pendergast and all new development in south central Kansas City was run through the equally powerful J.C Nichols. Although they feared Pendergast and knew that he could easily run them out of business if he wanted, the sisters forged ahead and opened their first Winstead's in Kansas City in 1940.
J.C. Nichols took pity on the sisters, looking down his nose at their root beer/hamburger stand and only charged the sisters for rent on the property. When beef became rationed during World War II, the sisters found themselves having to scramble to keep their place open. However, after the war ended, business began to flourish. They eventually bought the property from J.C. Nichols and grew their business as the automobile revolution hit in the 50's. On a good day, Winstead's would serve over 5000 burgers.
Pictured at right - The first Winstead's in Kansas City. (Photo courtesy Beth Partin.)
In 1952, Kathryn Winstead retired from the business. Amassing a nice little nest egg from the little burger stand, she turned over the reins of the business to Nelle and Gordon Montgomery. The Montgomery's did a little internal expanding in the following years.
French fries were introduced in 1957 along with milkshakes at Winsteads. Many a first date was had at Winstead's and many of those first dates turned into marriages. The married couples would eventually take their kids to Winstead's for their first restaurant burger. Winstead's has served generations of Kansas Citians over the years.
Two years after the death of Kathryn Winstead in 1967, the Montgomery's sold the Winstead's stand to Morris and Victor Lerner, brothers who owned King Louie International, a Kansas City-based corporation that ran bowling alleys and made bowling attire. The Lerner's expanded by opening two new Winstead locations - one in North Kansas City and the other in Overland Park, KS. (Nelle Winstead Montgomery died in 1990 at the age of 92. Gordon Montgomery passed 14 months after her death.)
In 1982, the Lerner family sold King Louie International to an investment group. The investment group was not interested in the Winstead restaurants and they looked at either closing or divesting themselves of the small chain. In stepped local restaurateur Nabil Haddad.
Haddad had an interesting life up to that point - he was a millionaire at the age of 19 by selling American rock and roll records along with American books from authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck in a small shop in present day Palestine. At night, Haddad would retire to a small shack and sold burgers and Coca-Cola's to a zealous group of enthusiasts. Haddad would say later that it was the first hamburger stand in the Middle East.
Due to political turmoil in Palastine in 1963, Haddad was sent to live with relatives in Baghdad. However, a week after he arrived, a military coup toppled the Iraqi government and Haddad spent some time in an Iraqi prison. After being released later that year, Haddad eventually made it to the United States where he began to work for a McDonald's franchise. Haddad later became a franchisee and a major stockholder in the McDonalds' corporation. He ended up buying other restaurants in and around the Kansas City area and founded the Haddad Restaurant Group in the early 90's along with his sons, David and Abraham. Today, the Haddad Restaurant Group oversees 9 Winstead locations in the greater Kansas City area.
The location on Metcalf at 80th St. in Overland Park (see map) is the one I have driven by dozens of times over the past few years. In fact, one of my old dealers in Kansas City had a location just behind the Winstead's on Floyd St. (picture below left courtesy Kansas Travel.org) Each of the Winstead locations have a distinctive tower on the front of an art deco-style building.
The interior of the Winstead's in Overland Park is brightly lit and downright spiffy. Comfortable chairs surround sturdy tables sitting on a carpeted floor. There are booths next to large windows along the side. The kitchen area is in the back corner and open so you can see them making the food from vantage points within the restaurant.
I took a seat in one of the spacious booths along the windowed wall and a waitress called out, "I'll be with ya in a minute, hon." It was after the lunch rush and there were, maybe, four other tables occupied while I was in there. The menu was on the table and I took a look through what they had. I knew I was going to get a burger, but they also had BLT's, tuna salad, grilled or crispy chicken, and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. They also serve breakfast sandwiches - egg and sausage, egg and bacon, egg and steak, etc. - from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Of course, you can get a Winstead's burger at any time a Winstead's is open. Most of them are open from 6:30 to midnight (1 a.m. on the weekends), but the original location near 47th and Main in Kansas City, MO has a 24 hour drive thru lane.
I really didn't know what to expect from a Winstead's burger, but sort of got the idea that it was similar to a Steak 'n Shake burger - a chain that preceded Winstead's and who opened their first location up the road from Springfield, IL, in Normal, IL in 1934. I do like a Steak 'n Shake burger, but I find them to be not a very good value. Because of that, I haven't eaten in a Steak 'n Shake for probably 15 years.
When the waitress showed up, I decided on getting a double Winstead burger with everything. Everything are your four main toppings and condiments - ketchup, mustard, onions (grilled or raw) and pickles. You can also add mayo for no charge. For a 39 cent upcharge you can get cheese on your Winstead burger. Bacon is an additional 95 cents, and lettuce and tomato are an extra 15 and 20 cents, respectively. Although I do like cheese on my burger, I decided for my first Winstead's burger to just get it plain. The waitress asked if I wanted any fries or onion rings. I said, "Nope. Just the burger is fine."
"Do you want a soda or a shake," she asked. I told her I just wanted water. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "All right. You're pretty easy!"
The burger came out in less than ten minutes and was wrapped in a small piece of wax paper, the old-style way of holding onto the burger as you ate it without getting your hands greasy. I discarded the paper before I ate the burger because I like the feel of the juices on my fingers.
The burger featured two flattened patties of ground steak meat and had a little bit of a crust on the outer shell of the meat. A nice fresh onion slice and copious amounts of dill pickles were on the burger along with a splash of ketchup and mustard.
My first bite of a Winstead's burger yielded a wonderful taste in my mouth. As I've said many times in the past, I'm not sold on the "smashed" burger concept, but I'm quickly warming up to it. While the outer shell of the patty did have a little crunch to the bite, it seared in the juices that gave the burger a great taste. The bun wasn't large, but it was flavorful and added to the overall superb taste of the burger. I made quick work of the burger, left $4.50 on the table for the burger and a small tip for the waitress, and left feeling good about my first Winstead's burger.
Not really knowing about Winstead's before my first visit was, I was happily surprised at how good their burgers are. For generations of Kansas Citians who grew up eating Winstead's burgers, it's no wonder that they made it to the finals of the Casual Food Chowdown in the burger division. My first Winstead burger was a pleasurable experience, one that I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I wish I would have known how good the burgers were long before this. I thought the burger at Winstead's was better than any I've had at a Steak 'n Shake and it was a MUCH better value. While I would probably go to Westport Flea Market before I'd go anyplace else in Kansas City for a burger, I can't deny that Winstead's makes a pretty damn good burger. One that I would easily go back to have again at some point.