By Mary Giorgio
Most of us have eaten at a Steak ‘n Shake at some point in our lives. Not many of us know that the brand was revived from the brink of extinction by Hoosier native Estel Wood (E.W.) Kelley. During his career in industry, Kelley established some of America’s most iconic food products. As a philanthropist, he gave millions of dollars to higher education development at Indiana University.
Kelley was born in Sharpsville, Indiana, in 1917. His parents were farmers. Kelley grew up learning the value of hard work. He received his education from the community’s one-room schoolhouse. After high school, Kelley enrolled at Indiana University’s School of Business. There, he quickly became a student leader. He founded the school’s accounting club and served as president of the student body. He graduated in 1939.
Throughout his business career, Kelley worked to develop many popular American products. While running the Bird’s Eye division of General Foods, he is credited with suggesting a mix of peas and pearl onions. The mix continues to be a popular product today.
At Fairmount Foods, Kelley helped develop Klondike bars. He also played a leading role in the marketing of Tang and Cool Whip. During his career, Kelley also made significant contributions to the successful introduction of Grey Poupon, A1 Steak Sauce, and Smirnoff vodka.
In 1981, Kelley’s Indianapolis-based investment group, E. W. Kelley and Associates, bought the Steak ‘n Shake restaurant chain. Steak ‘n Shake was originally founded in 1934 by Gus Belt of Normal, Illinois. His diner’s burgers and shakes were so beloved that Belt began a small franchise. After his death, the restaurant changed hands several times, struggling to maintain its identity and loyal patron base.
Under Kelley’s leadership, Steak ‘n Shake was revived. Soon, the restaurant had gone from a small, struggling chain to a huge franchise with over 450 locations. The key to Kelley’s success was taking the chain back to its roots: quality burgers and shakes served in 1950s-style diners. Some of Kelley’s key changes included an updated menu, food made to order and delivered by a server, and use of real China and flatware.
Kelley credited his business success to his education at Indiana University. He remembered his years as a student fondly and ultimately decided to donate millions of dollars to the school. His first gifts were made to Indiana University Kokomo, located near his Sharpsville home.
His donations funded its Kelley Student Center, Kelley House, the library, and a scholarship fund. In 1997, he donated $23 million to establish the Kelley Scholars program at Indiana University’s business school. In 1999, Kelley endowed a chair in business administration. Because of his generous contributions, the business school changed its name to the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.
A Hoosier at heart, Kelly maintained a residence in Sharpsville. In 1985, he started a nonprofit organization on his family farm. Over time, the organization restored many of the farm’s original buildings for museum use. It continues today as the Kelly Agricultural Historical Museum. The museum serves as an event venue for Tipton County.
Sadly, Kelley passed away in 2003 at 86. A successful businessman and philanthropist, E. W. Kelley’s legacy includes the introduction of many iconic brands and a namesake business school at Indiana University. The next time you bite into a famed Steak ‘n Shake burger, remember its Hoosier roots and the man who revived the iconic chain.