If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you've learned that debates rage across the state of Iowa as to who has the best loose-meat burger. I'm partial to the Maid-Rite from Newton, many people who grew up in Ottumwa and that area say the Canteen Lunch is the best there is, and there's a large contingent of Central Iowans who say Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown is the best Maid-Rite style sandwich. On a recent trip between Cedar Rapids and Ames, I had the chance to stop into Marshalltown and have a couple Taylor's Maid-Rite for dinner.
Once again, a quick primer for those of you who aren't familiar with what a Maid-Rite is. It's basically a burger, only with steamed loose ground beef. It's served in a wrapper with a spoon to pick up the loose meat that falls out of the sandwich. And while you'll find Maid-Rite shops around the Midwest, it's definitely an Iowa phenomenon. The original Maid-Rite was founded in 1926 in Muscatine. The second Maid-Rite was founded a year later in Newton and the third Maid-Rite opened in 1928 in Marshalltown.
Cliff Taylor was living in Newton in 1928 and liked the new Maid-Rite there so much that he decided to open a Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. He paid founder Fred Angell $300 for the franchise rights for Marshalltown and soon opened his Maid-Rite. Taylor, his wife and his son, Don, ran the small shop on S. 3rd St. near the downtown area.
In the late 1930's, Fred Angell had decreed that all Maid-Rite locations add a special seasoning that he came up with to the steamed ground beef. Cliff Taylor didn't like the seasoning and didn't add it to his Maid-Rites. Angell tried to get Taylor to add the seasoning, but under the terms of their original contract signed in 1928, no seasonings were mentioned and Angell couldn't force Taylor to add the seasonings. I believe the same thing was true with the original owner of the Maid-Rite in Newton, as well. Both the Marshalltown and Newton Maid-Rites used - and continue to use - USDA Choice beef for their Maid-Rite meat with no preservatives, additives or spices. A little salt is included in the cooking process.
The original Maid-Rites were also designed to be served with yellow mustard, pickles and onions only. No ketchup. Taylor's Maid-Rite adhered to that core principal since day one. And they were militant about it, too. That's why I was overly surprised to see ketchup bottles on the counter during my recent visit. It turns out that Taylor's Maid-Rite did a survey a couple three years ago as to whether or not to bring in ketchup. Over 2000 people responded and by a very short margin ketchup won. Taylor's Maid-Rite began to provide the condiment to their patrons.
After Cliff Taylor's death in 1944, Don Taylor and his wife, Polly, took over the day-to-day operation. The shop was so small that Don Taylor had to store their fresh daily ground beef in a refrigerator in his basement. The Taylor's also baked their famous homemade pies in their home and ferried them to the restaurant to serve to their customers.
In 1958, Taylor built what is the existing location for their Maid-Rite directly across the street from the original shop (see map). The cooking bins were stainless steel, it offered seating for over 40 people and it was certainly a modern facility for its day.
Don Taylor continued to run the business up to his death in 1973. For the next 12 years, Polly and a handful of longtime employees ran the day-to-day operation at Taylor's Maid-Rite. In 1985, Polly's grandson, Don Short, took over the company. After running the company for 25 years, Don Short recently ceded operations back over to his mother, Sandy Taylor Short.
Don Short kept the traditions in place that his great-grandfather and grandfather made famous over the years. When other Maid-Rite locations were adding items to their menu, Short relied upon just having Maid-Rites, pies and ice cream. He never brought in French fries because he didn't want to have to clean a deep fryer. Keeping the steam bins clean was enough work for him.
Those steam bins have caused Short a lot of anguish over the past few years. In 2006, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (D.I.A.) decided that the bins that Short and other 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.
It has been said that this ruling by the Iowa D.I.A. was prompted by the head of the Maid-Rite franchise company, Bradley Burt, who wanted all Maid-Rites to have a uniform way of cooking their meat. In other words, Burt wanted all Maid-Rite franchises to buy the meat already cooked, then frozen, from him and then warm it up in a cooker as needed. I've had this type of Maid-Rite sandwich and I have to tell you quite bluntly, they really suck. They have no life in the meat, it's tasteless and bland. It's like they have sucked the soul right out of the sandwich.
At the time of the initial ruling, the head of the Iowa D.I.A. said that he thought it would be foolish to make the old time Maid-Rites change their method of cooking considering they've been doing it the same way for so long. However, when Chet Culver was elected Governor of Iowa in 2006, he cleaned house at the D.I.A. and installed Dean Lerner as the new director. Lerner immediately ordered the removal of all the existing steam bins in Maid-Rites that were still using them and replace them with a new cooker for the meat - one similar to what Burt was using in his "new" Maid-Rites.
Don Short appealed the Iowa D.I.A.'s decision saying that the new $7000 cookers there were required to install were inadequate and too small for the volume of business they did. He also maintained that a number of Maid-Rites in small towns - including Taylor's - that continued to use the steam bins could go out of business if they had to bring in the new cookers. Last year, a judge ruled against Short's motion saying that even though no one had gotten sick during the two-year appeal process, the ruling was a "reasonable reversal of policy" by the Iowa D.I.A.
A state senator who lived near Marshalltown drew up legislation to allow the original Maid-Rites to continue to use the steam bins and the measure was passed by the Iowa Senate. However, state representatives from the Des Moines area - and who may have been friendly to the interests of Bradley Burt - took the measure out of the bill it was attached to and it was never passed by the Iowa House of Representatives.
In the meantime, it turned out there was some connection between Iowa D.I.A. head Dean Lerner and Maid-Rite corporate chairman Bradley Burt. Citing a conflict of interest on Lerner's part, Short asked the Iowa State Department of Public Health to step in and take over the process of appeal. However, DPH director Tom Newton issued a ruling that Taylor's Maid-Rite was in violation of administrative guidelines for having the steam bins in his establishment.
With the recent election of Terry Branstad as Iowa's governor, Lerner was let go as the head of the Iowa D.I.A. and Rod Roberts was installed as the new director. There is hope among the Short's and other old-style Maid-Rite owners that he will reverse the directive handed down by Lerner. As of now, nothing has changed, and it's business as usual for Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown.
(Update Sept. 2011 - After numerous warnings and threats to shut them down over health violations given by the Iowa State Department of Public Health, it appears the new administration has given Taylor's a clean bill of health with their cooking methods. Click here to read the story from the Food Safety News web site.)
Taylor's Maid-Rite may be the most famous of all the Maid-Rites in existence, not only due to the Short's spearheading this appeal process against the State of Iowa, but for the way they market themselves. Their web site is simply www.maidrite.com, something that probably has to stick in the craw of the Maid-Rite corporation that has www.maid-rite.com as their web site. Not only can you order Taylor's Maid-Rite shirts, mugs and glasses on the web site, but you can have their Maid-Rites shipped nearly anywhere in the United States. The Maid-Rites are made at Taylor's, frozen without pickles or onions (those are included in a plastic container), then shipped 2nd Day Air in a reusable cooler with frozen gel packs inserted in with the sandwiches. You can un-thaw the sandwiches and then re-heat them in a microwave (sort of sounds like what the current Maid-Rite corporation is trying to get the franchises to do). Maid-Rites are orderable in quantities of one, two or three dozen at a time. I understand their mail-order business for Maid-Rites is a big enterprise for them, but I can't imagine that they'd taste anywhere as close to having one at the counter at Taylor's Maid-Rite.
It was just before six p.m. on a cold, rain-swept evening when I pulled into the parking lot at Taylor's Maid-Rite. There were five people seated at the counter when I got there, but a number of people were walking in and getting Maid-Rites to go. When the waitress came over, I ordered two Maid-Rites with everything - mustard, pickles, onions.
I was sort of shocked after I ordered to look up at the menu board and realize that Taylor's now featured cheese Maid-Rites. This was also something that the Short's recently added to their menu. You couldn't get ketchup or cheese on a Maid-Rite at Taylor's for, well, since they opened up. But within the past couple of years, you can now get both. I was sort of glad I didn't get the cheese on my Maid-Rites, for tradition and old times sake.
The Maid-Rite at Taylor's is not much different from the one in Newton or the Canteen in Ottumwa. You can order it wet (I got mine a little wet) with a little of the beef broth added to the meat. It sort of clumps the meat together and gives it a little more of a moist - and flavorful - taste.
And both of the Taylor's Maid-Rites I had were very good. They have a slightly different taste from the ones I get in Newton or at the Canteen in Ottumwa, but it's all good. The old steam bins, no doubt, have a lot to do with the taste of the Maid-Rites and/or Canteen burgers. It would be a shame - and quite probably the death knell - of these places if they were forced to change their method of cooking their beef.
While I'm still partial to the Maid-Rites in Newton, and God knows that I've been chastised by people from Ottumwa for that, I think which one tastes the best is all about with what you grew up with. Now, that's not particularly true for my cousin who grew up on Newton Maid-Rites - he thinks that Taylor's have the best Maid-Rites between all of them and he'd rather drive to Marshalltown and have one up there rather than eat at the one in Newton. But it really doesn't matter which of the three you try, you'll be indulging in a large slice of Iowa tradition and history. And Taylor's Maid-Rite is quite possibly the most famous of them all.