Winstead’s was once a pillar of Kansas City. What happened?

Illustration by Daniel Sulzberg

It used to be like church. Or, rather, since I’m Jewish, a synagogue. After the Plaza Art Fair, or maybe after seeing the Plaza lights, our family would park under the glowing green neon sign next to the white-tile Streamline Moderne building. In the foyer, you would read big, framed reprints of magazine clippings that touted the fare inside. No less an authority than Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker claimed the burgers you were about to eat were the finest on earth.

Then you sat in a booth of seafoam vinyl cushions and ordered from memory—only amateurs used the menu. Your waitress, who seemed to have emerged fully formed from the set of American Graffiti, might call you “doll” or “sweetie.” Soon the table became a glorious orgy of carbs, salt and fat, from crispy-edged steakburgers slathered in sauce to the gargantuan, chocolate skyscraper soda. You could almost hear your arteries harden.

Winstead’s, which opened in 1940, once had nine locations in the metroplex. Today, only three remain. Soon they may all be gone, as the brand has declared itself bankrupt.

Why the decline? Quality control is a factor, for sure. In the age of online reviews, one stale bun or flaccid french fry can cost you customers by the dozen.

Increased competition surely also plays a role, particularly from a place like Freddy’s, which sells largely the same product line in an updated package, including online merch sales and aggressively cute social media. There’s also no need to tip a server.

But the biggest reason for Winstead’s fall might be the broader generic-ification of America. As our city has grown, the centrality to the Kansas City experience of older, locally owned spots has inevitably faded. Just like every other American town, our suburbs and exurbs have a constantly increasing sameness. Call it Generica, where Lenexa looks like Leavenworth, which looks like Lee’s Summit and Leawood.

Maybe newer Kansas Citians, who grew up in the far-flung suburbs, never went to the original Winstead’s as a kid. To them, maybe there’s no magic there. It’s just another burger joint.

That’s a shame. Franchises have their place. Efficiency and predictability are fine. But idiosyncrasy and individuality are pretty cool, too. It’d be nice if we could keep some of what makes Kansas City different from, say, Cleveland or Kalamazoo. Holding on to that individuality—the places that differentiate us and tie us to our past—might even be worth an occasional soggy french fry.

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