Earl's, Smaks and other Kansas City hamburgers that almost no one still remembers

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The original Earl's, courtesy Missouri Valley Room, Kansas City Public Library
  • The original Earl's, courtesy Missouri Valley Room, Kansas City Public Library

Yesterday, when I was writing about the new Fire Burgers restaurant at 240 East Linwood, I remembered that there used to be another burger joint -- a famous one -- right across the street. It was a tiny diner called Earl's, and when I moved to Kansas City back in the 1980s, people would tell me how great the sandwiches were.

I'm embarrassed to say that I must have driven by the little restaurant a hundred times and never stopped in. Now I have regrets: Did I miss something really great?

Smaks was a hot hamburger chain back in the 1960s.
  • Smaks was a hot hamburger chain back in the 1960s.

There was a lot of fanfare when Earl's was torn down (to make way for the Costco parking lot), and I sort of recall that patrons of the joint bought bags of the burgers, making me think that they were small sandwiches not unlike the sliders from the nearby White Castle -- another iconic burger chain that came and went in Kansas City.

I also missed out on a local burger chain called Smaks ("Home of the Ranch-Fresh Hamburger"), which many baby boomers recall with near reverence. The drive-in restaurants were owned by Ted Llewellyn.

I have seen some of the late 1960s newspaper ads for the drive-ins, which feature photos of Kansas City Chiefs players, including Jerry Mays, under a headline stating "Chiefs Jerry Mays' Smaks His Wife!" It's so unbelievably politically incorrect now -- 43 years later -- that I can hardly imagine it being all that acceptable then. But Smaks, like another forgotten local burger joint -- Allen's Drive-In -- had a big following among teenagers.

I can't help but wonder, though, were those burgers really that good?

My friend Julie O'Neill worked at the Smaks at 63rd and Troost in the 1970s. "The hamburgers were little -- not like White Castle, just really thin meat patties," she recalls. "They were ridiculously cheap. You could get, like, five for a dollar."

Five for a buck? That is pretty good.

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