Ted Drewes Frozen Custard: It is an institution that is synonymous with St. Louis. Ask a local to recommend a sweet stop, and they’ll point you in the direction of the Chippewa or South Grand locations. Ladue News caught up with Ted, 83, to ask him about the history and success of his delicious business.
LN: Your father started Ted Drewes in 1929—where did the idea for frozen custard come from?
TD: My dad was a very good amateur tennis player, but you couldn’t make much money in tennis those days. One day, he went to a Royal American Show to visit his cousin, who had invented the caterpillar ride, and the cousin suggested he try selling frozen custard—a big hit on the East Coast at the time. My dad spent a summer traveling with the carnival selling frozen custard, and it was new, so people went for it even though he said it actually tasted horrible. He experimented all summer until finally, he got a product that tasted good.
LN: How was the ‘concrete’ invented?
TD: In 1959, there was a neighborhood boy who would buy a chocolate shake from us day, he’d want it thicker. Finally, one day I just made it with custard and chocolate and turned it upside down in front of him. He went half-crazy, he was so excited! The boy asked me what I was going to call that creation, and I said, Well, some people call them cements, so we’ll call it a concrete.
LN: So many people in St. Louis know and love Ted Drewes—what do you think accounts for your success?
TD: I think advertising is a big part of it. My dad believed in advertising, but he didn’t think it’d pay to advertise frozen custard that only cost a nickel or a dime. When we finally started doing ads on the radio in 1970 with WIL, our sales went up right away. Someone said to me, When you start advertising, you might be surprised how much you will want to stand by your word and make it true. I realized all the things we were doing wrong, and I was motivated to fix them. If you’re going to say, It really is good, guys, and gals, you should make sure everything you serve is good.
LN: Have you ever considered expanding to more stores?
TD: We used to have three stores, but I was never in a good mood because I was always going from one store to the next, working all day and night. I’ll never forget when one of the workers came up to me and said, Ted, how come you’re always smiling? I was never smiling. When we finally closed the Natural Bridge location, I was immediately a happier person and a better boss. Now, I could just focus on putting out a good product.
LN: What is the experience like for the high school and college students who often work for Ted Drewes?
TD: This year, out of 80 employees, 20 are probably first-year workers. They may have come to the store as customers and admired the way things move in there, but it’s a bit of a shock when they realize what work is really like. It’s very demanding, but I’m impressed how quickly young people catch on to things in today’s computer age. The average worker is a lot smarter when they come to us than they used to be. People will say, You can’t find good help these days—well, that’s just not true.
LN: How do you come up with new flavors?
TD: My wife, Dottie, has helped me with that a bit. When we first started traveling in my 40s, we went to Hawaii and she told me I just had to create an item and name it after the place. The Hawaiian is a big seller. I also like to create products and give them names that make people smile, like the Dutchman and the Big Apple.
LN: And what’s your favorite?
TD: Our hot fudge is awfully good. When I’m at one of the stores to visit the workers or customers, I almost always take a clean spoon and dip it in the hot fudge—just make sure it’s hot!