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Thursday, June 26, 2003 02:32 pm

Made Just Right

Maid-Rite sticks to its recipe for success

The meat is loose. The bun is steamed. And the method is simple. Take a scoop of steamed hamburger that has simmered for hours in salt, pepper, and garlic, then place it on a bun with a bit of mustard, pickle relish, and onion. So what is it about the "Maid-Rite" sandwich that has kept people coming back for more since 1924?

It could be the fact that the sandwiches are served up in the Maid-Rite restaurant, the second oldest eatery in Springfield, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Or maybe it's that the business also boasts of having the first and fastest drive-thru in the country. (In fact, the food is waiting at the window usually before the customer has time to get money out to pay.) And the root beer--or beer, as it's called by staff and customers alike--is homemade and served in cold mugs. The quick service, simple sandwich, and nostalgic feeling add up to success, says owner Sam Quaisi.

"There's no secret," he explains. "It's a steamed loose hamburger. We cook it, steam it, and get the grease out of it." Later, though, he admits the meat simmers for several hours to soak up the spices. "People say they try it at home and it's not the same. That's the secret."

In the early 1920s, butcher Fred Angell created a special ground beef sandwich with selected spices. As the story goes, a delivery man, after tasting the sandwich, said it was "made right" and the name has remained the same since.

The Maid-Rite, located at the corner of Jefferson and Pasfield, opened in August 1924. The ownership has changed a few times, but not much else is different. Aside from the addition of a larger dining room with tables and booths, the place remains the same.

Quaisi, 45, has owned and managed the business since 1996. Though the former state employee had worked as a cook, including a stint at the Governor's Mansion during the reign of Jim Thompson, he had never owned a restaurant. These days, he enjoys cooking, greeting customers, and giving new visitors a quick history lesson on the famous sandwich. "I like serving people. You never get bored from this job. We have at least one new customer a day," he says.

While the short menu consists basically of Maid-Rites with or without cheese, French fries, milkshakes, and soft drinks, Barbecue Rites and Horseshoes have been added to the menu. Quaisi says one day he realized he could create his own version of the local favorite: "We have the meat, we have the fries. All we need is cheese sauce." Yet 75 percent of customers usually order the daily special, which consists of two "Maids," fries, and a root beer for $4.99. Quaisi says the restaurant sells about 300 sandwiches a day, or "a cow a week," and last year he shipped about 700 frozen "Maids."

State employees, tourists, and construction workers frequent the nondescript L-shaped building. The original restaurant is a mere closet-sized room where hungry patrons pick up bags of burgers. The drive-thru window is just a few feet away from where fries are cooking and shakes are blended. Within arm's reach is the counter, where more burgers are wrapped in paper and slapped on down before most customers finish ordering. Thankfully the addition of the larger room gave people someplace to sit down.

Regular customers are so familiar that Quaisi and his staff of six know exactly what they will order and can even prepare take-out orders by recognizing cars in the drive-thru. Recently Rochester resident Paul Bogan dined on two Maid-Rites while perched on one of three wooden stools at the counter. That's a ritual he follows several times a week. "It's good service and good food," he says. "It's always consistent."

The Maid-Rite is located at the corner of Jefferson and Pasfield (523-0723). Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

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