“I hear a lot of stories,” says Sam Quaisi, owner of Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop on old Route 66 in Springfield. He stands behind the counter, prepping the meat for a busy day ahead.
Elvis croons on the jukebox as Quaisi describes the myriad of folks who visit his restaurant, including Route 66 travelers, fairgoers, and visitors from as far away as Russia, Germany and Spain. His regulars come in two or three times a week, some even daily.
“I’ve been here 23, 24 years so far. People, they come in and look at me and say, ‘Aw, man, you still here?’ I joke with them and say, ‘Yes, I remember you. You were an ornery kid. You came in with your parents and don’t sit down until I say behave or I won’t make you a sandwich.’”
The recipe for Maid-Rite’s loose meat sandwich has remained unchanged since the establishment opened in the early 1920s, its name coined by a delivery man who declared his food was “made right.” The simple, delicious sandwich consists of “loose hamburger on a steamed bun with a lil bit of mustard, pickle relish and onion,” according to the menu board. A “maid-wrong” is the playful term Quaisi uses when patrons request he hold the onion.
Another must-have on the menu is Maid-Rite’s homemade root beer in a frosty glass, simply made with sassafras, vanilla, sugar and water. Even better, have him add a scoop of ice cream and make it a float. Sarah, one of his customers, makes the homemade ice cream, which now bears the Maid-Rite name. “I try to help her out to be a success,” he says.
Maid-Rite, officially registered with the State of Illinois in 1924, is touted as the nation’s first drive-thru restaurant and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Quaisi, a former employee at the Illinois Department of Revenue building across the street, purchased the Springfield favorite in 1986. He has been approached many times by the Iowa chain of restaurants bearing the same name, but Quaisi isn’t interested.
“There would have been a lot of changes. Customers wouldn’t have been happy.” He prefers to preserve this little slice of Americana by carrying on the long-running traditions of its previous owners.
Quaisi describes the building while standing in the “caboose.” The original building, a train caboose minus its wheels, consisted of two drive-up windows (on opposite sides of the building), the cooking area, the counter and a small dining room (which together had a capacity of about 33 with some people standing).
The second drive-thru window now opens to another dining room, added in the mid-80s, which seats 40. Inside the “new” dining room is an old-fashioned jukebox with favorites from eras past, including the Beach Boys, the Shangri-Las, the Coasters and the Mamas and the Papas, for a quarter a song.
“Good morning, sweetie!” The day’s first regular pulls up in the drive-thru. “She’s a good girl,” Quaisi says. He props open the window and tells her, “Hey, you’ve got to smile for the camera.” They chat, and he bids her adieu with a “See ya, honey.”
The lunch rush typically begins around 11 a.m., and the drive-thru stays busy later in the afternoon as people pick up food for dinner. Quaisi sends the staff home at 4 p.m., Maid-Rite’s official closing time, but he often stays and fills orders until 4:30 or 5 p.m. More than once he’s been in the parking lot, ready to go home, and cars pull up. “‘We drove from Indiana, we drove from Chicago,’ they say. I never turn people down.”
Once he received a call at home. “A pregnant lady was craving the root beer. I had to open the place for her.” To this day, he has no idea how she got his home phone number.
Quaisi encourages visitors to sign one of two guest registers: one for out-of-towners and another for those who live in the area yet have never been there before. He also has kids sign, telling them, “Look, you’re famous! You’re in a famous place.”
Quaisi says he’ll probably retire in a year or two, but he will miss the place, especially the customers. He stopped buying the newspaper because too often he’d see longtime patrons in the obituaries. One day a woman came in and bought two sandwiches, one for her and one to leave at her mother’s grave. Maid-Rite had been their favorite restaurant.
He shares the memory of another customer, pointing to a photo of them together on the dining room wall. “She passed a week before her (102nd) birthday. Customers would ask what kept her going, and she’d say, ‘a Maid and a beer.’” A Maid-Rite sandwich and a homemade root beer, that is.
“It’s like, ‘he was here last week!’ You hear stories. They break my heart.” On a positive note, families still bring their young children to the establishment. They send Quaisi notes, which he frames and hangs on the wall, along with photos of customers and a plethora of memorabilia.
The year 2024 will mark Maid-Rite’s official 100th anniversary. On the restaurant’s 90th, they served more than 600 sandwiches. He assures that he’ll be at this celebration, too.