After being shuttered for months by a dispute between local franchisees and the company's corporate headquarters, popular Steak 'n Shake restaurants in Centennial and Sheridan reopened this week, attracting large crowds with offers of free food and promises to donate 10 percent of first-week sales to area flood relief.
“We invest in the communities we serve, and are pleased to support the local Red Cross chapter by giving back to those affected by the recent flooding,” said Jim Flaniken, senior vice president of marketing for the Indianapolis-based company.
For Centennial residents Marc Behringer and Taylor Wilsey, the best news of all: The restaurant chain was offering the first 100 customers to dine at the Centennial and Sheridan locations on Nov. 25 free Steak 'n Shake for a year.
On reopening day, Behringer and Wilsey were the first two people standing in a long line that snaked around the Centennial restaurant and across the adjacent parking lot.
The couple had claimed the pole position by showing up the previous evening at 11 p.m. and camping outside the front door in blustery, subfreezing temperatures.
“It was a little chilly,” Behringer admitted. “But we had fun. Now we'll be able to eat free Steak 'n Shake for the next year.”
Wilsey agreed. “I got hooked on their food in Florida. I used to go to Steak 'n Shake every time I visited my grandmother there,” she said.
Steak 'n Shake corporate will manage and operate the Centennial and Sheridan locations.
Both restaurants will be open 24 hours a day.
The Centennial restaurant is located at 8271 S. Quebec Street.
The Sheridan restaurant is located at 3502 River Point Parkway.
In recent weeks, the company has hired more than 140 new employees.
In business since 1934, Steak 'n Shake operates more than 500 restaurants around the country, with many located in the South and Midwest.
The Centennial and Sheridan restaurants have been in the headlines in recent months, closed since late summer by a tangle of lawsuits filed after the franchise owner ignored a corporate directive and charged higher prices for certain menu items.
The metro-area's only two Steak 'n Shake franchises had been owned by Kathryn and Larry Baerns and their son Christopher.
The Baernses opened Colorado's first Steak 'n Shake in Centennial in 2011, investing a reported $4 million to secure a 20-year lease as well as the option to open as many as a dozen more Denver-area locations.
But in September of this year, a judge ordered the Baernses to stop operating under the Steak 'n Shake banner because of an ongoing, increasingly contentious disagreement with the corporate office over pricing of menu items.
At one point, the dispute prompted Steak 'n Shake corporate to cut off the computerized cash register systems in Centennial and Sheridan.
This summer, a Denver judge stepped into the fray and granted the Baernses a temporary restraining order, forcing the company to bring the Centennial and Sheridan restaurants back online.
But after the restraining order expired in early September, the corporate office once again withdrew its technical support and the Baernses were forced to close their restaurants again.
Although the two parties remain embroiled in legal action over damage claims by the Baernses, last month the company announced it had reached an agreement with the family to take over the two Denver-area locations.
In their most recent press release, Steak 'n Shake officials made no mention of the ongoing legal issues.
Attempts to reach the Baernses or their attorney were unsuccessful.
But none of the restaurant chain's recent legal challenges seemed to concern those standing in line outside the Centennial Steak 'n Shake Nov. 25.
“I heard about the free food on the radio and had to come over here and check it out,” said Craig Wilson, who lives in Aurora and had been waiting in line for three hours, covered by a thick blanket and thin layer of snow flurries.
“My toes are frozen and I feel like I could be catching a cold,” Wilson said. “But a free steak burger and vanilla shake should be just what the doctor ordered.”