66 Through St. Louis: Donut Drive-In & Ted Drewes
For Route 66 fans, there's no better place on a mild spring night than Chippewa Street. On a short section near St. Louis's city limits, two Route 66 legends sit just blocks apart. Their neon signs glow in the night, calling to travelers and lighting up the neighborhood. For more than half a century, they’ve tantalized Mother Road drivers with a truly challenging question: Should I stop for custard, or should I stop for a donut?
Despite the name, Donut Drive-In doesn’t have a drive-up or car-side service window, and it hasn’t since its 1952 opening. (The name originally advertised that off-street parking was available.) The building is a simple white rectangle made of concrete blocks, but inside is a bounty of heavenly, doughy delights. Whatever your flavors of choice—long johns, crullers, sugar-coated, custard-filled, or thick-as-a-brick cake donuts—you can wash them all down with “the finest coffee in town.”
The fresh donuts get some help reeling in Route 66 travelers from the shop’s spectacular red neon sign. A 2008 National Park Service grant helped restore the animated sign, which features free-falling donuts. In late 2016, Donut Drive-In received another face-lift when the backlit plexiglas signs on its roof were restored to their original appearance.
Ted Drewes Sr. was an ace tennis player, winning Forest Park’s Muny Championship each year for nearly a decade, starting in 1926. He began selling frozen custard from the back of a truck before opening a stand in Florida in 1929. The next year he returned to St. Louis and opened a custard stand on Natural Bridge Road. In 1931 he opened a second location on South Grand in the Dutchtown neighborhood, which still operates today. Ten years later, Drewes opened yet another stand, and this time he chose a spot directly on the Main Street of America.
Anticipating how important it would be to have parking, Drewes bought an especially large lot on Route 66. Soon afterward Ted Drewes began offering the frozen treat it would become famous for—the concrete. Ted Drewes Jr., who still operates the shop with his family, explained just how the concrete was born:
We always made shakes that were thick, but not like concrete, where you could turn them upside down. So one day a boy that always wanted a thick shake said, “Can’t you make it thicker, Ted? Come on, Ted, make it thick, make it thicker!” I made one for him with just custard and chocolate and malt, and I mixed it real quick on the mixer and got it real thick for him. And right when I handed it to him I turned the cup upside down, and the frozen custard didn’t come out, and he said, “Well, Ted, what are you gonna call that?” And I said, "Well, some people call thick malts 'cement,' we’ll just call ours 'concrete.'” And that’s how the concrete was born. . . . This boy is now in his 60s I guess, and whenever he comes to the store, he reminds me he made me famous.
During ice-cream season, you can find at least one customer at the Chippewa stand no matter what time of day you drive by. And on Friday and Saturday nights, hundreds gather around the windows outside while inside a flurry of workers in characteristic dandelion yellow shirts whip up concretes. Indeed, Ted Drewes seems to never sleep, even in the winter: From Black Friday through Christmas Eve, the ice-cream stand transforms into a Christmas tree lot.
The moral of this Route 66 story? If you find yourself traveling down Route 66 on Chippewa Street, be sure to take a break and check out the neon signs and sweet offerings. You can’t go wrong with a dozen of the Mother Road’s best donuts or a thick spoonful of concrete.
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian