There is a popular photograph of a rundown urban building with a painted sign that says “brains 25 cents” with an arrow and words “drive in” pointing toward the back of the building. What’s the story behind the sign?
The “brains 25 cents drive in” painted sign was on the second story of Harvey’s Sandwich System, a diner at the corner of Chouteau and Carr Lane Avenue in St. Louis. The restaurant closed in 1976, the sign was demolished in 1983 or 1984, and the building was demolished in 1993.
Brains 25 cents drive in
Numerous photographs of the building exist, some of which have a fuzzy street sign visible, and in others, the Gateway Arch is visible in the distance on the left, placing the photograph in St Louis. And yes, the sign and the business were real.
The sign on the front of the white Victorian-style storefront was difficult to read in most photographs, but it read Harvey’s Sandwich System. The building stood at the intersection of Chouteau Avenue (what was once Route 66) and Carr Lane Avenue, about a half mile south of St Louis University, and about 2 miles southwest of the Scott Joplin house, in St Louis’s Gate District neighborhood.
Most of the known photos of the building date from the late 1970s to about 1983. The building deteriorated rapidly after its last occupant went out of business around 1978.
One of the photos dating to 1979 was published in the book Fading Ads of St Louis by William Stage. Stage wrote that Harvey’s closed around 1976, and another business, Lane’s Truck Stop, occupied the building afterward. Stage described Harvey’s as St Louis’s quintessential greasy spoon diner.
Harvey’s Sandwich System, St. Louis
The brains 25 cents sign isn’t just a meme, it was the subject of postcards long before household Internet access was a thing, and it was a local landmark for decades.
The building’s proper street address was 3532 Chouteau. And it was open for nearly 40 years, closing in 1976. Before it was a diner, it was a small meat market. Ads in the local papers suggest the meat market was in business at least from 1915 to 1934. According to the city of St Louis, the property was last sold in May 1978, for the price of $5,250. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $22,000 in 2021 dollars. The building was demolished in October 1993.
But the sign met its demise before the rest of the building did. In the winter of 1983, a fire damaged the building, and the building’s then-owner demolished the top story, leaving very little of the sign. This explains why the demolition permit stated the building was a single story, when all the famous photographs clearly show a second story. At the time, an owner did not have to get a permit to demolish a building. That law changed in 1984.
The neighboring building in the photograph was Usona Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of ornamental and architectural metal. Usona was liquidated in 1985, so it outlasted its neighbor. That building’s owner demolished it in 1994.
A second location
The name suggests that wasn’t the only location. Now sometimes a business will name itself in such a way to suggest multiple locations to make itself seem bigger, but looking through the archives of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, there was indeed a second location, at 1927 North Grand. If the ads are any indication, the peak years for Harvey’s were in the 1940s. According to the owners’ obituaries, they operated from 1937 to 1976.
There is no record of the demolition of the Grand location of Harvey’s Sandwich System. Presumably it was demolished before the existence of digital records. Perhaps it was before the law requiring a permit. The last help wanted ad for any business from that location appeared in 1959. The next time it was mentioned in the paper started in 1980, when property taxes went delinquent. A permit to build a sign on the site was issued in June of 2000, and it listed the property as being vacant, or empty, at the time.
Harvey Evans, the man behind the brains 25 cents sign
Harvey Evans was the restaurant’s namesake. He and his wife Marie ran the restaurant for 39 years, retiring in 1976. Harvey died in August 1987, at the age of 77. Marie died in December 1992, also at the age of 77. Their obituaries gave little detail. They had a daughter, and Marie was born in Arkansas. Both obituaries contained a mistake, suggesting they operated a single restaurant at Chouteau and Grand. Their ads from the 1940s make it clear there was a location on each street, about two miles apart, though Chouteau and Grand was the closest major intersection to the Chouteau location in the photograph.
His obituary stated he was a baker by trade. Although the photographer who made it famous described it as a diner, the building had a large 7up branded sign that said “Donuts.”
Was the sign a joke?
The sign became an enduring joke, but it was not intended as such. Those with weak stomachs may wish to stop reading here.
At one time, East St Louis and the surrounding area was a thriving stockyard that did booming business. Fried brain sandwiches were popular in the St Louis area. They were in acquired taste, but they were cheap. 25 cents in 1945 was the equivalent of $3.84 in 2021 dollars.
The phenomenon, if you can call it that, died with the East St. Louis stockyards. It did not prove as enduring as, say, Provel cheese or gooey butter cake. Even if the East St Louis stockyards hadn’t died out, the practice likely would have due to health concerns.
I’ve lived in the St. Louis area since 1983, and I rarely heard of it. From the accounts I’ve seen in the local newspapers, it was pretty much unknown outside of a 100-mile radius of St. Louis.