The aroma of cooking meat is pervasive and intoxicating, and people flock to it like ants to a sugar bowl.
White Barn, a modest burger joint in Moline Acres in north St. Louis County, has served an unbroken line of drive-up and foot traffic for almost 30 years. Inarguably the best-smelling barn ever, the place is renowned for its indescribably addictive half-pound hamburgers and a mystique that's even harder to define.
The quaint brick structure on Chambers Road has had few modifications over the years, aside from the removal of a walk-in freezer and window awnings and the presence of Debbie and Ed Mueller, who bought the business from Rich Robson, the original owner, in 2003. The kitchen is not much larger than a respectable walk-in closet: Aaron Jones jots orders - mostly for hamburgers - on scrap paper, practically rubbing shoulders with Rich, who still mans the steel griddle. Paces away, Debbie takes cash, bags food and hands out orders with no-nonsense urgency.
Made to order - and "worth the weight," as the restaurant's slogan states - the imposing beef bundles take up to 15 minutes to cook through. The resultant crumbly meat mass has a salty-crusty exterior with an explosion of juices awaiting escape with the first bite. Dill slices, a light sprinkling of chopped white onion and squirts of ketchup and mustard come standard, and for just 15 or 30 cents more, customers can add American cheese to a single or double burger, respectively. Frequent diners know to request a dollop of the Barn's signature garlic mayo, a tangy addition that mingles symbiotically with the cheese.
The burgers are packaged matter-of-factly in bulging brown bags lightly stained with warm grease. Most devotees hunker down happily to a single patty, but a brave few tackle the double. Served on a three-piece white bun that includes a stabilizing bread buffer between the patties, the 1-pound burger challenges the jaw and stomach capacities of most mere mortals. The triple? Fuggetaboutit! Few attempt it and fewer succeed.
At 75, Robson, an Army veteran, has been serving hot food, cold drinks and warm smiles in the St. Louis area since he first fired up his lunch truck in 1956. In those days he sold mainly to employees of General Motors, Carter Carburetor and about eight other area businesses in a harried lunchtime selling spree. Robson could fit only 20 burgers on the gas grill mounted in the back of his box truck, but if he timed his cooking and his stops wisely, no one went hungry.
"I'd just ride along with the [back] doors open; I don't know if I was supposed to do that," he says. "When I came to a stoplight, I would run around and flip the burgers." Robson kept up the mobile diner until 1988, several years after he opened the White Barn in a former Velvet Freeze building in 1981.
"I've enjoyed every minute of it," Robson says. "I love the people, and I love to work - and I like to flirt with the ladies."
The customers, like the White Barn building, have changed little. Robson still gets visits from those die-hard original clients from the GM/Carter era. They come to the window asking for "Dick the Diner," his nickname back then, but Robson has other ways to identify them. "The GM guys come up and yell really loud because they're deaf from working in the plant," he says.
Debbie warmly greets a young woman as she considers her order. "How you doing, Shay?" Employees know many customers by name, and Robson estimates he shakes hands with 20 or more every day, even on his part-time schedule.
For Kim and Mike Zorich of Spanish Lake, dinner at the Barn has been a tradition for the last 25 years or so, even before their marriage and kids came along. Kim now treks to the diner twice a week or more with Mike and their children, Katie and Kyle, in tow.
On this sunny evening in early May, though, they're tailgating on the lot of the new Florissant store, which debuted April 9, 2010. Kim digs into a burger slathered with garlic mayo; beside her, Katie enjoys catfish and fries.
"Opening day, we waited in line for an hour," Kim says. "It's that good! We wouldn't do that anywhere else. ... We came here for lunch one day, and they were already running out [of beef]."
With a long-standing reputation for using local vendors, the White Barn was locavore long before it was a trend. Bill's Riverview Market & Meats on Bellefontaine Road grinds and provides fresh beef daily. Piekutowski's European Style Sausage on North Florissant supplies hot links and Polish sausage; Vess furnishes soft drinks; and Tocco Foods Co. on East Prairie provides some meats, condiments and sundry other food items.
Rich says he briefly switched to another meat supplier after a dispute with Riverview over prices and immediately regretted the decision. "It was not the same. If [the Muellers] ever get rid of Riverview for their meat, it's over because it's fresh. It makes all the difference."
Robson shapes the 10-pound bags of beef into 20 uniform balls and pats them into thick patties as needed. After slapping around raw meat for roughly a half-century, he knows 8 ounces of ground beef by feel. "If I ever catch on fire, I'll burn for a week I've got so much grease in me."
They've Got a New Grill Now
If the Moline Acres Barn is the sugar cube on an anthill, the Florissant location could be described as the mother of all picnics. The new store has turned the Muellers' schedules topsy-turvy.
"It took off like a rocket ship without anything but opening the doors," says Ed, who leads the crew at the new restaurant along with general manager Brandon Wildman. "People have gone to one location and saw a line and drove [about 10 miles] to the other place. That's loyalty."
Early on a Tuesday evening, there is scarcely time to scratch an itch as the walk-up traffic bottlenecks and the drive-thru line grows longer. A dozen or so cars snake around the structure under the waning sun. Just past 7 o'clock, the crew has already run out of hot dogs. Cook Joseph Wallace turns his attention to an order of cheese fries, using a Barn trick to accelerate the melting process. After a quick dunk in hot oil, a glistening slice of American drapes languidly over the golden potatoes.
But clearly, beef is king at the Barn. While Debbie and Rich serve 90 pounds of it daily in Moline Acres, the Florissant customers are devouring about 300 pounds, and Ed says that amount might be even higher after hours are extended to 2am for the summer. When they're not gorging on ground beef, faithful Barnies are chowing down on the two runners-up: fried catfish and - in a shocking victory over American faves chicken strips and brats - liver and onions.
Kim Zorich never doubted that the essence of the White Barn would "translate" to Florissant. "I was confident it would be just as good."
That includes superior service. Kim recalls a time when she got to the window only to discover she'd left her money at home - a cardinal sin in a cash-only enterprise. Ed took her order and her word that she'd pay later. "He cares about his customers. Who else would do that?"
Ed said his and Debbie's vision is to keep the atmosphere warm and welcoming. "She wanted it to be like Thanksgiving with family all the time."
However, the Muellers credit Robson for the White Barn's personality, even at the new location. "Rich is one of the most generous, sweetest, nicest people you'll ever meet," Debbie says, adding: "If he passes, we're going to tell people he's on vacation for a while - so they keep coming."
Full and happy, Kim peeks through the drive-up window to say goodbye to her favorite cook, Ed, who smiles and shouts a hearty greeting. "It's the White Barn family," he says. "It is kind of like Thanksgiving."
Although the Muellers have replicated much of the original Barn's appeal at the new digs, Robson good-naturedly claims superiority at the grill. "Not to brag, but I can out-fry them all."
So what's the real appeal? Is it the fat, half-pound slabs of salty-savory meat or the crispy catfish? Is it the finger-sized fries with just the right crunch or that heavenly smell of piping-hot beef that draws people the way catnip attracts kitties?
Perhaps none of these. The retro building and even more old-fashioned customer service recall an era many St. Louisans desperately miss.
A taste of nostalgia is quite a powerful ingredient.
Visit White Barn:
|2457 Chambers Road|
|Mon. - Sat., 11am - 8pm|
|2182 N. Lindbergh Blvd.|
|Mon. - Sat., 11am - 2am|