Published October 9th, 2017 at 10:35 AM
The elephant on Johnson Drive stopped traffic.
“My dad [Bill Fielder] had met a zookeeper and he asked him to bring over an elephant for the opening of Smaks,” Wes Fielder said. “You’d watch the cars out front and people would slam on their brakes to try to figure out what was going on.”
The first Smaks opened in 1956 at 5420 Johnson Drive with that traffic stopping stunt. Over the next 40 years, Smaks would grow into a regional burger chain with locations in seven states. It became a staple for families seeking cheap, quick burgers, thick shakes, and hand-dipped onion rings.
Smaks helped shape the burger and fast food landscape in and around Kansas City. The Johnson County Museum is in the midst of putting together an exhibit with pictures and artifacts from Smaks. It’s a name that still resonates with local residents as evidenced by reader Amber Davidson’s question for curiousKC. She wanted to know about the history and ownership of the Smaks restaurant chain. It’s a story that stretches back more than 70 years and begins with a man named Wayne Jones.
Jones was a butcher for Kroger in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1942, he moved his family to Kansas City so he could manage the meat department here. But when Kroger asked him to manage the whole store, he quit and decided to launch Caterers, Inc. The success of the catering operation helped propel him into the restaurant business.
In 1944, Jones purchased his first Allen’s Drive-In at 63rd and Paseo. He intended to change the name to “Pappy’s,” but with neon in short supply because of World War II, he had to stick with Allen’s. A year later, his son-in-law William Fielder came aboard to help run Allen’s.
Allen’s had curb service and a dining room. Burgers, malts, and barbecue would all be brought on trays. Allen’s offered thin burgers, lean affairs thanks to the addition of soybean, which also gave them their sheen. The burgers were modeled after the success of another local upstart: Winstead’s. The burger universe was a small one then. Winstead’s co-owner Gordon Montgomery bought meat from Jones. [For those who never had the chance to dine at Allen’s, Wes Fielder likens it to Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers out of Wichita, Kansas, as the closest current burger stand in operation.]
Over the first decade of ownership, the chain of Allen’s grew slowly out from Kansas City with Kansas outposts added in Topeka and Lawrence. Allen’s was the progenitor to Smaks. People were willing to wait for their food at Allen’s, but Smaks was fast food. The Allen’s Royal burger became the Smak-A-Roo (a triple stack with lettuce, cheese, and tomato on a toasted bun), served alongside tenderloins, and those hand-dipped onion rings. In 1954, Ted Llewellyn, Jones’ other son-in-law, returned home from the Navy and entered the family business.
A year before Ray Kroc visited Dick and Mac McDonald in 1955, Jones and Llewelyn went out to San Bernardino, California, to see the brothers’ burger shop. McDonald’s had the golden arches. Smaks would have a series of green overhangs. Burgers would cost a nickel.
Lynn Llewellyn Kilpatrick’s first job was standing on a crate in the kitchen at Smaks. Her brother Ted would pop the onions apart. She’d pick up the circles of onions, her hands in rubber gloves secured by rubber bands, dip them in batter, and dredge them in coating.
“People would come and watch us because it was all glass in front,” Kilpatrick, Ted Llewellyn’s daughter, said. “My dad would give us a dollar for the day. I loved it.”
According to Wes Fielder, Jones told him that McDonald’s offered the family the state of Missouri as a territory in 1960, but they declined. McDonald’s didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“We were family owned,” Fielder said. “We didn’t want to lose out to corporations.”
And they wouldn’t, for a time.
In 1961, Bill Fielder left the company to join Ueli Prager, the founder of the Movenpick hotel and restaurant group, in Switzerland and help launch a series of fast food concepts based on the burger stands that were popping up across America. The first Silberkugel (which translates to the “Silver Bullet”) opened in Zurich a year later.
When they split, Wes Fielder says that his family had plans for another 70 Smaks and 30 Allen’s Drive-Ins across the country. As part of those plans, Kilpatrick spent a pair of high school summers counting the number of fast food restaurants in cities like Green Bay, Wisconsin, El Paso, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
In the midst of expansion, Ted Llewelyn wanted to give Smaks a new identity, something to draw in families. In 1964, advertising executive Bill Witcher came in with an unorthodox pitch: Smaky, a seal puppet that would grant his “seal of approval,” to the food at Smaks. There was even a “Smaky Meal,” with a small burger, fries, a soft drink, and toy. Animals, it turns out, were a big part of Smaks’ identity.
For more than a decade, the family would buy the winner of the American Royal’s market steer contest.
“I was in grade school at Hickory Grove and I remember my teacher saying that we have a special surprise,” Kilpatrick said. “I looked out the window and there was this big cow.”
The cow would be brought around to local Smaks and Allen’s before it was butchered at a central commissary. Built in 1965, Allen’s and Smaks’ commissary was at 4601 Van Brunt, where they baked their own rolls, mixed up the house barbecue sauce, sliced potatoes for French fries, and broke down beef from their ranch in Maple Hill, Kansas.
Over a 20-year span, the family had built a regional burger empire. There were a dozen Allen’s and more than two dozen Smaks across Kansas and Missouri. There was a Smaks in the Ward Parkway Center and 6420 Troost (now a parking lot that sits adjacent to a McDonald’s), and 9420 Mission Road in Overland Park, Kansas (where the Mission Road Animal Clinic is today). Jones and Llewellyn also opened a pair of Bobby Bell’s BBQ restaurants, one in North Kansas City and another at 95th and Metcalf in Overland Park. Jones’ barbecue sauce was featured on the Hickory burger at Smaks.
Allen’s and Smaks sponsored youth baseball and women’s bowling teams, screenings of “The Wizard of Oz” at Glenwood Theater, and the Ice Capades. It also became an unofficial incubator for restaurateurs in Kansas City. Caterers Inc. had a classroom where managers were taught how to run a restaurant. Bill Gilbert and Paul Robinson managed Allen’s before going on to found Houlihan’s.
As the demands of customers’ shifted, Smaks dabbled with a burger buffet — a Fixin’ Table — where you could dress up your burger with lettuce, onion, tomatoes, and pickles at their location on 87th and Santa Fe in Overland Park. But it became harder and harder to compete with rapidly growing chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.
Bill Fielder returned to America and tried his hand at another hamburger franchise. Hasty House sold the “hamburger that went to Switzerland.” The chain expanded to 27 locations, including two in Kansas City that were eventually sold back to the family and converted to Smaks.
“Our dads were married to that place,” Wes Fielder said. “They’d get home at two in the morning. They’d get up and see us off to school before going to work at 10 a.m.”
The end for Smaks and Allen’s roughly coincides with the invention of the Happy Meal in Kansas City. Advertising executive Bob Bernstein invented the McDonald’s children’s meal that was test-marketed in Kansas City in October 1977. Two years later, it would be introduced as a national menu item. For Smaks, shrinking margins, national competitors entering the market, and a balance sheet heavily weighed down by debt from rapid growth slowly squeezed the life out of the regional chain.
In 1983, Smaks filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Wendy’s purchased several Smaks locations and a few more became Arby’s. Within three years, all of the area Smaks properties closed. Ted Llewellyn moved out to California and sold real estate. Bill Fielder opened up the Yellowstone Bus Company in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a beach community in Encinitas, California.
“A lot of people want to know what happened to Smaks,” Kilpatrick said. “Interest rates got high and it was a lean time for restaurants. It was hard to compete with the national chains.”
Got a question about Kansas City, the region or the people who live here? Anything you’ve always wondered about, found peculiar or downright confusing? Share your questions with KCPT’s curiousKC
My very favorite hamburgers were at Watts Mill, 103rd and State Line, and I thought they were Smaks, with the Smacky Seal logo. When they closed, And after a few experimental visits to other fast food locations, I stopped those visits decades ago..