In his seven years running Sam's Steakhouse (10205 Gravois Road, 314-849-3033), Mark Erney has learned a lot about why guests regularly flock to the iconic south county restaurant. There's its long history that dates back to the Busch family, its role as a multi-generational gathering place and the juicy steaks that grace its plates. However, if he has to narrow down the one thing that makes Sam's so special, Erney doesn't hesitate: It's the sauce.
"I've been in the industry for over 30 years and have never seen anything like the response you get here when people take a bite of steak and can't put their finger on why it's better than any other they've had," Erney says. "It's our secret weapon. A few places do something similar, but we like to think we have the original secret recipe. It really does have 42 different ingredients in it, so there's no way anyone is getting them all, and even if they do, they don't know the amounts — and it can easily sway one way or another if you screw with it."
For three decades, that mouthwatering, savory nectar has been gracing the steaks at Sam's. The recipe goes back to the restaurant's founding, developed by Sam Andria, who may have been involved with Sam's for only its first year but whose name and recipe has had a lasting impact on the beloved steakhouse.
However big Andria's legacy may be, the heart of Sam's is its chairman and chief instigator, Denny Long. A former Anheuser-Busch president and chief operating officer, Long dreamed of owning a restaurant where he and his friends could gather over good food, play music and provide hospitality to the surrounding community. He got that opportunity when he retired from the brewery 30 years ago and suggested to a group of close friends that they should go into business together. He'd already found the building: the old Busch family spot at the intersection of Gravois and Laclede Station. As Erney tells it, the building was August Busch Sr.'s last stop on the way to the family's sprawling country homestead, now Grant's Farm, and Long figured he'd carry on the Busch family legacy in his retirement as he did in his career.
The friends' partnership ended amicably after a year. Andria, who developed the sauce and much of the concept, went on to open Andria's Steakhouse just across the Mississippi River in Illinois, and the other partners went their own ways outside of the industry. Long, however, remained, and together with his son, Patrick, built Sam's into a beloved part of the south county dining landscape thanks to their uncompromising hospitality and generosity, as well as wonderful food.
"We've always done a lot for the community — passing out air conditioners in the summer and heaters in the winter — and we do our share of giving back, probably even when we shouldn't," Erney says. "Denny has always been a huge giver. If he could put out a sign that says 'free steaks for everybody,' he would be a happy guy."
For the past seven years, Erney has seen that generosity firsthand. A seasoned industry veteran and longtime friend of Patrick's, Erney had been chatting for some time with the Long family about stepping in to run the restaurant when father and son were ready to transition away from its daily operations. Erney came with serious know-how, having spent most of his career as the vice president of concept development for one of the nation's largest restaurant chains. He'd also run three bars in St. Louis, balancing out his corporate experience with knowledge of the local scene; for the Long family, this made him the perfect candidate to continue their legacy at Sam's.
As Sam's celebrates its 30-year anniversary, that's something Erney does not take lightly.
"I wasn't looking to come around like this big changing of the guard or anything," Erney says. "Denny and Patrick spent the last 30 years building all these bridges, and I wasn't about to come in here and start tearing them down. We've just focused on freshening it up and on our wine pairings — really trying to make the younger generation feel welcome without pushing the older generation out. We want to tear down those barriers and make it feel fun and uplifting for everyone who comes out here."
Erney has seen those efforts pay off. Despite the pandemic-related struggles of the past few years, business is thriving, with new regulars establishing Sam's as their place alongside longtime customers — some of them different generations of the same family. Erney knows that success has a lot to do with tradition, and he credits the special things about Sam's, like its renowned Christmas celebrations, with keeping that feeling alive.
"If you know Denny, you know he's always loved Christmas, so every year it got bigger and bigger, to the point where it lasts for four months here," Erney says. "I tell my mom and dad that when they come to St. Louis they have to see the Arch and they have to see Sam's at Christmas time."
Erney also understands that Sam's would not be where it is today without its fierce commitment to hospitality. It's something he tries to provide even before guests walk through the door, through details like what the parking lot looks like and whether there are any lightbulbs that need changing. Once guests enter the building, they are greeted warmly, given a drink and made to feel special. Erney sees the proof that this resonates with guests when he notes that people are celebrating some of the most important events of their lives at Sam's.
That he and his team have the privilege of helping to make those memories for people is what makes his work worthwhile.
"I tell the staff here every day at lineup that we are throwing a dinner party for the most important people in your family — the people you love the most," Erney says. "We have the ability to do whatever we can for people; there are a lot of 'no's out there, but I feel like we can blow people away. Anybody can put a steak and beer in front of you, but Sam's has this certain way of making you feel like you're at Grandma's house and having the best meal of your life."Coming soon: Riverfront Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting St. Louis stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
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