It was 1956, and Bud Taylor, Curt Bennett and Ralph Stille found themselves in a bit of a pickle. For the past year, they'd been running their IBC Root Beer stand on the corner of Page and Pennsylvania avenues under the branded name Dairy Dell, with its franchise-specific menu requirements. However, as they gained a following, they began adding other offerings — burgers, fries, hot dogs — and realized they were deviating far enough from the Dairy Dell model that they needed to come up with a new name. Sitting around one night, the three men spitballed a few ideas, throwing out names like Broil-A-Burger and What-A-Burger before Stille had a revelation.
"My dad said, 'What about Chuck-A-Burger?' since we serve ground chuck," says Ron Stille, Ralph's son and current owner of the beloved burger spot. "Part of the reason was that, at the time, Steak 'n Shake was huge, and people would hang out there on Friday nights, saying that they were headed to Steak. He figured it sounded good to say, 'We're going to Chuck.' To this day, I still have people say they will meet me at Chuck. It happens a lot."
For Ron Stille, running the last remaining location of the iconic burger-and-fries joint makes him both a restaurateur and a historian — a role he relishes as a way to keep alive the memory of what his father helped to create. Picking up the story with the rechristening of the former Dairy Dell, Stille says that then-owner Taylor and his managers, Bennett and Stille's dad, set out to dethrone their Steak 'n Shake competitor. The plan included expansion with new locations in St. John, and then Crestwood.
By 1972, Chuck-A-Burger had grown into a bona fide chain with eight locations around town and a commissary kitchen where they made all of their fries, buns and numerous other items. However, that success would not go on forever. Around that time, things were beginning to change in the industry as other national players — Burger King, Burger Chef, McDonald's — came online and crowded the burger chain space. The competition became so fierce that Taylor had to file for bankruptcy in 1973. Stille vividly remembers hearing the news.
"I was away at college, and Mom called and said that Dad was out of a job," Stille recalls. "Dad had to take a job selling life insurance — started at the bottom at the age of 52. It was tough, but Curt had kept the Rock Road Chuck-A-Burger going after Bud filed for bankruptcy, and he started having a hell of a time because of the tough competition. He called Dad and said he had to get out; would my dad want to buy it. My dad said what the hell."
Ralph Stille bought Chuck-A-Burger from Bennett in 1977, and it only took about a year before he recruited his son to help out. At the time, Ron Stille was working for St. Louis County rehabbing houses, so he signed on to assist his dad with the restaurant at night. Under their watch, the restaurant chugged along, not making a lot of money, but making enough to keep the doors open. Chuck-A-Burger's fortunes would change, however, when a friend of the family approached Stille's father with an idea to celebrate the burger spot's silver anniversary.
"Our friend Lou was a big car guy, and he said we should do an anniversary car show on the 25th anniversary of the Rock Road store opening," Stille says. "Dad was a little hesitant because he'd had some issues in the past with high school kids peeling out of the parking lot and stuff, but he decided to do it. It wasn't necessarily a car show, but we called it a 'cruise.' It was unbelievably successful, and the rest is history as far as nostalgia, notoriety and growth."
Stille credits that initial car show — and subsequent ones that appealed to classic automobile enthusiasts and '50s and '60s music fans alike — as being a renaissance for the restaurant. From that day forward, Chuck-A-Burger became synonymous with its cruises, turning it from a regular burger-and-malt shop into a beacon of nostalgia. Even after Stille's father passed and the business transferred hands to him, the restaurant remained a thriving destination, evolving from a good burger-and-malt shop into an icon of the city's restaurant scene.
Stille is humbled that this remains the case, even amidst the challenges the past year and a half have presented. In shock, like the rest of the world, he recalls being filled with disbelief as he and his longtime staff watched the pandemic unfold, but he's thankful that his model was already set up to accommodate the changes in dining habits.
"Fifty percent of our business is curb service, so it was not our first rodeo," Stille says. "We closed the dining room, but curb service took off even more. It was freaking crazy. A lot of other restaurants were having a harder time because they had no curb service, but thankfully, we did and took ball and ran with it because it's what we do. We were definitely scared and didn't know what was going to happen; it was a pretty difficult time and very stressful but, knock on wood, we were busy and still are."
Stille believes the reason Chuck-A-Burger continues to be busy during the pandemic, even as its dining room remains closed, is because it means so much to the community. Nearly as often as he gets orders for cheeseburgers and onion rings, he hears stories about how people met their spouses at the restaurant, took their kids there, shared pineapple shakes with their dad at its counter or even parked out back with their sweethearts in the '50s.
"If that canopy could talk," Stille laughs. Those stories are special to him because they mean that his family has done more than simply serve good food to their guests; they have had a meaningful impact on people's lives. For that reason, no matter how vintage the decor may be, Chuck-A-Burger will never go out of style.
"Dad used to say that the good thing about our place is we never have to redecorate," Stille says. "Just leave everything exactly the way it was. You relive the past when you come visit Chuck-A-Burger. It's like driving into a time warp; when you come across that parking lot it's like in 1957 again."
9025 St. Charles Rock Road, St. John
Year opened: 1956
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