Red’s Giant Hamburg sometime after it closed in December 1984. [State Historical Society of Missouri, David Eslick Photograph Collection, SP0088, 1976-2001]

The original Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri, was a legendary roadside spot for almost forty years before it closed in 1984. Known for its crispy “Redburgs,” hand-cut fries, and homemade root beer, Red’s epitomized the rise of roadside dining and car culture in the 1950s.

After returning from serving in the US Army during World War II, Sheldon “Red” Chaney, accompanied by his wife, Julia, and his parents, took a trip to the West Coast. Upon their return home to Illinois, they traveled through Springfield on Route 66. Chaney’s father, Alfred, a restaurateur, took a shine to the town and sold his business in Illinois to purchase three Springfield lots fronting Route 66 in the 2800 block of West Chestnut. The lots featured an H. C. Sinclair gas station, lunch counter, and tourist court. Alfred Chaney oversaw the tourist court, while Red handled the restaurant. To attract customers, Red Chaney constructed a large sign in the shape of a cross that read “Giant Hamburger.” Upon installing it, he realized the sign would interfere with overhead power lines and cut the last two letters off the sign. Later, after customers kept backing into the sign, Chaney permanently parked a 1955 Buick in front of it, giving the business a signature look.

Red, who studied business administration in college, oversaw operations and served as the energetic front man. Early on, he attended Chicago restaurant conventions to learn new ways to maximize profits and improve service. Julia Chaney oversaw the grill with occasional assistance from hired help and her in-laws. From the moment they opened their doors in the spring of 1947, the Chaneys’ focus on providing fast service and delicious fare manifested itself in unique ways. In 1948, to keep up with increasing customer demand, Red installed a drive-up window with speakers so customers could place their order, park, and then pick up their food. It may have been the first of its kind in the fast-food industry. When a line began to form at the drive-up window, Red would run out into the street to take orders from waiting customers.

The couple ground their own hamburger from Grade A beef, brewed their own root beer, cut their fries fresh from potatoes, and added their own blend of spices to dill pickles and ketchup for extra flavor. Chili, brown beans, and steak plate lunches were also customer favorites on the restaurant’s limited menu. Five sizes of burgers, called “Redburgs,” were cooked on a nickel-plated grill because Red believed it “got the heat to the hamburger fast.” Five-gallon Thermos jugs of ice water were stationed on each table along with paper cups. The restaurant’s interior was painted in a vivid assortment of colors that Red selected to make customers feel like they were on a picnic. 

Red’s Giant Hamburg had many quirks that made it a beloved institution. The Chaneys, a familiar sight in Springfield’s local nightclubs, loved to dance. At his restaurant, Red Chaney was known for spontaneously dancing to his favorite rockabilly music. He would drum on the counter with knives in time to the music and, as a former member of his college tumbling team, leap acrobatically over the counter to deliver hamburgers to customers. In 1983 the Morrells immortalized the restaurant in a music video of their song “Red’s,” which captured the restaurant’s energetic atmosphere.

A year later the Chaneys announced their decision to retire. On December 14, 1984, after selling their last 721 hamburgers, Red’s Giant Hamburg closed. Over time, the restaurant fell into disrepair and the city of Springfield ordered it demolished. In an interview, Red Chaney acknowledged the building’s poor state and did not contest the decision. Two weeks after the building was razed in May 1997, he passed away on June 2. Julia Chaney died on May 19, 2006. Prior to her death, Springfield restaurateur David Campbell purchased the trademark and rights to Red’s Giant Hamburg. In 2019 Campbell and business partner Greg Iott opened Red’s Giant Hamburg at 2301 West Sunshine Street in Springfield. Portraits of Red and Julia are featured prominently above the counter.

Further Reading

Baker, T. Lindsay. Eating Up Route 66: Foodways on America’s Mother Road. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022.

“Bulldozer Gets Last Bite at Red’s.” Springfield News-Leader, May 20, 1997, 1A, 9A.

Chaney, Julia Etter. Prairies to Hamburgs: Julia’s StoryVirden, IL: Golden Nugget Productions, 2003. Online at Missouri State University Digital Collections. 

Curtis, C. H. “Skip.” The Birthplace of Route 66: Springfield, Mo. Springfield, MO: Curtis Enterprises, 2001.

“Eatery’s Owner Broke Many Business Rules.” Springfield News-Leader, June 3, 1997, 10A.

“Fast-Food Innovator Chaney Dies.” Springfield News-Leader, June 3, 1997, 1A, 10A.

“Last Stand for Hamburg Finally Ends.” Springfield News-Leader, December 15, 1984, 1A, 2A.

“No More Red’s Giant Hamburg?” Springfield News-Leader, December 6, 1984, 8A.

Pike, Tommy. Interview with Julia Chaney. Route 66 Oral Histories. Missouri State University Digital Collections. 

Sonderman, Joe. “Red’s Giant Hamburg.” Show Me Route 66 Magazine 22, no. 4 (2012): 28–32.

Published March 27, 2024; Last updated April 29, 2024

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