Ted Drewes Frozen Custard: A Route 66 Delicious Icon in St. Louis
No trip along Route 66 or to St. Louis would be complete without a tasting the famously delicious Ted Drewes frozen custard. Here's the story behind the custard.
The Story Behind the CustardTheodore Raymond Drewes (Ted) grew up in Hannibal and relocated to St. Louis when he was about eight years old. He became well known in the St. Louis amateur tennis circuit, winning the tennis Muny championships for 12 successive years, from 1925 to 1936. He also won the National Public Parks title four years in a row in the mid 1920s. Ted met Mildred at Mount Calvary Church, west of downtown. They married in 1921 and had four children, three girls, Dolly, Marjorie, and Joan, and one boy, Ted Jr.
In 1929, Ted was very much in the glory years of his tennis career but there was no money to be made in tennis back then, so at age 32, he found a money-making opportunity. Ted’s cousin, who had invented the carnival ride called the Caterpillar, stopped in St. Louis on his way west with the Royal American Carnival. He told Ted he had made $3,000 in one carnival stint alone and that there was money to be made if Ted wanted to sell frozen custard, which came from a machine.
Ted found a machine in Illinois somewhere then joined the carnival circuit. The machine came with a recipe for the frozen custard but it was awful and Ted had to change it before getting started. He used cream, fresh milk, and eggs instead for the recipe, until he was happy with the product.
Ted toured with the carnival circuit for the 1929 season, transporting the heavy custard machine by train to the next location. After the season was over, he packed up the family and moved to Florida for the winter where he set up a permanent stand in St. Petersburg. By this time the Depression had hit our nation and the Florida store did not do so well, and Ted returned to St. Louis with his family and custard machine.
Ted Drewes Finds a Permanent Home in St. LouisIn 1930, Ted opened his first St. Louis location at Natural Bridge and Goodfellow. It was located across from Rogers White Front. That place became Ed’s White Front in 1933, which was a very busy restaurant and offered curb service.
Ted Jr. recalls that his mother Mildred was involved with the business from the very beginning, even though she had four kids at home. One evening he heard his parents discussing Ed’s White Front and the curb service concept. Mildred told Ted she would offer curb service to see if it would work as well for them as it did for the White Front. As the first curb hop, Mildred never wrote down any orders, relying on her memory when she called back the orders. Ted paid rent to his good friend, Sam the Watermelon Man, but he was supposed to have been paying the rent to someone else. Ted had to relocate that store and it changed locations several times in its 27 years before it closed in 1957. One of North St. Louis’ best kept secrets, the Goody Goody Diner, is today still located across from the former Ed’s White Front and just 100 feet west of the original Ted Drewes location.
Ted Drewes Becomes a Route 66 IconIn 1931, Ted opened his second store at 4224 Grand Avenue. The famous Highway 66 icon at 6726 Chippewa would follow 10 years later in 1941. All three stores offered curb service, with the Chippewa store offering it the longest, until 1977. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard (officially, there is no apostrophe) continued as a traditional family business with all four children becoming active in the business.
Ted Jr.’s first duty, at age eight, was to pick up trash in the neighborhood and on the parking lot and then wash the root beer mugs. All four children worked there but Margie and Ted Jr. devoted over 70 years to it. Ted believed service was paramount and on one occasion he took Ted Jr. to a South St. Louis tavern to observe excellent service firsthand. The bartender knew every customer by name and had a genuine, personalized greeting for each of his customers. This made a lasting impression on Ted Jr. Mildred also taught Ted Jr. how to work and he has a genuine appreciation for it.
Throughout the years, the family had to adjust to the economy and changes in the neighborhood and they adapted well to whatever came their way. In the early years at the 66 location, the traffic was so heavy it affected business. During World War II, the country endured the rationing of many products, including sugar. The suppliers kept close tabs on the amount of sugar purchased by each company, allowing them only 90% of what had been purchased the year before. The Drewes eliminated cones and modified the custard recipe. One of Ted Jr.’s jobs during this time was to stop at the A& P and Katz Drug and wipe the shelves clean of all their honey, which Ted used as a substitute sweetener. After the war was over, it took a few years to get cones back on the menu, but both Ted and Ted Jr. realized the frozen custard recipe tasted better with the honey in it. It has been in the recipe ever since.
Next Generation of Drewes and Changes ComeTed Jr. graduated from Washington University in 1950 and then joined his dad full time. That same year, at age 21, he married Dottie Wehmeyer who was 18. Dottie had worked as a Ted Drewes curb hop when Ted Jr. was still learning the business from his father. They had three daughters in quick succession. One died in infancy and the other two, Christy and Cindy, were raised around the custard business. The early years were lean. As they were just starting out, the family couldn’t afford to vacation or eat out and Ted Jr. felt he had to work long hours, sometimes 14 hour days.
There were lots of children in the neighborhood and Ted Jr. followed his father’s commitment to personal service. Soon, some of the differences in how father and son did business came to light. For example, Ted never wanted to be listed in the telephone book because he didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls. Ted also always preferred the frozen custard being served from a cup and would have been content if the cone had never reappeared after the war.
In 1953, the Drewes ventured into a new area and started selling Christmas trees. Ted and Ted Jr. traveled yearly to Nova Scotia to ship trees back to St. Louis. Ted enjoyed the trips very much. By 1959, the family had bought land in Canada to eliminate the middleman. Christmas trees became an important part of the family business.
Ted Jr. was willing to try new approaches and in the 1950s he talked his dad into letting him sell soft serve ice cream at the Chippewa store for use in cones and sundaes. To Ted Jr. it was more economical (selling for 5 cents while the custard sold for 10 cents) and it provided an additional menu choice. Soft serve ice cream lasted for about three years until one day Ted was at the Chippewa store when a neighborhood regular came to the window. Ted Jr. told his dad the boy always got the soft serve. Ted asked the boy, "Do you want the custard or that other junk?" Ted Jr. witnessed firsthand his father’s utter distaste for the soft serve and he never offered soft serve again. The custard had outsold the soft serve five to one all along so Ted Jr. felt he learned two very valuable lessons from his father in this example: stick with your best product, and don’t give customers too many choices.
Custard Becomes ConcreteIn 1959, Ted Jr. came up with a winner. There was a neighborhood boy who came to the store regularly and every day he requested a thick, chocolate malt. After Ted Jr. handed it to him, he always asked the same thing, "Can’t you make it any thicker?"
One day, Ted Jr. had had about enough of this and this time he put no liquid in the concoction and turned it upside down in a triumphant gesture that screamed, "Is this thick enough for you, Steve?"
Steve Gamber was finally satisfied as have thousands of others who have followed. The name concrete was a variation of the popular cement shake — the thick version offered by local ice cream shops, including the Parkmoor. Steve Gamber is now a member of the Ted Drewes Hall of Fame. Concretes have spawned many imitations, but there is only one Ted Drewes concrete.
Of course, the concrete is what you make it as there are many varieties to be had and you can order your own custom mix. The custard is always vanilla, but from there you can add whatever flavorings and toppings you like. Some of the specialties are the Hawaiian (pineapple, macadamia nuts, coconut and bananas), the Dottie (light chocolate, macadamia nuts and mint), the Dutchman (roasted pecans, light chocolate and butterscotch), the All Shook Up (Reese’s peanut butter cups and bananas) and the Johnny Rabbitt (chocolate covered cherries). Seasonal favorites include a Bunny crete (carrot cake blend) and a pumpkin pie concoction called the Great Pumpkin crete. In the 1980s, Ted Jr. was concerned about portion sizes and came up with the mini-crete.
In the 1970s, the stores started doing very well. Jack Carney, a local radio personality, voluntarily promoted the frozen custard on his show as did Jim White, a paid promoter. In the 1990s, Michael Wallis included Ted Drewes in his famous book, Route 66, The Mother Road, which continues to bring travelers to the shop. Still, the success likely came from Ted Jr.’s commitment to excellence. He enjoyed the day to day running of the business and was on the premises ensuring his standards were being met. Although he has had many offers to franchise, Ted Jr. has refused. He does not think the business could succeed with absentee ownership and he has no interest in mediocrity. He wants products with the Ted Drewes name to stand for quality.
Ted died in 1968 and Mildred stayed interested in the business until her death in 2002. The Ted Drewes workers still do not write down any customer orders as a tribute to her.
The business continues to be a family-run enterprise with son-in-law Travis Dillon (married to Christy) in charge now. Dottie is happy to have more time with her husband. All of Ted Jr.’s six grandkids have worked at the stores in the summers while taking a break from their education. Locals, tourists, and a new generation of Route 66 travelers continue to look for the bright neon signs and the icicles hanging off the building. The Ted Drewes stores continue to deliver excellent service and a quality product.
Excerpted and adapted with permission from Norma Bolin's new book, Route 66 St. Louis: From the Bridges to the Diamonds. It features over 200 stories about businesses along the famed highway in St. Louis, with many of them based on personal interviews with the families. Published by St. Louis Transitions and can be ordered online at Route66StLouis.com Black and White Photo: Grand location with Ted Drewes Sr in the photo courtesy Ted Drewes/St. Louis Transitions. Color Photoe: Ted Drewes Route 66 location in 2007. Photo courtesy of OffbeatTravel.com
Article is based on an interview of Ted Drewes Jr.