What is Ground Steak?

From meager beginnings in the Great Depression, the ground steak sandwich not only survived, it thrived. So popular is this melt-in-your-mouth cousin to the hamburger that nearly a century later it has received its own food trail.

This uniquely Surry County creation is believed to have originated in the 1930s at the old Canteen Restaurant in Mount Airy before spreading to diners in nearby Pilot Mountain, Elkin and Dobson.

Cooks with limited resources got more out of ground beef by boiling or browning the meat, adding flour and water (or milk), and seasoning with salt and pepper. They placed the tender, loose-meat patty on a bun and topped it with slaw, often adding mayonnaise and a freshly sliced tomato.

“When the lunch whistle blew at textile factories in Mount Airy, workers would walk to Main Street for sandwiches, and one of those was ground steak,” says Travis Frye, coordinator of the Surry County Tourism Development Authority. “It was an affordable sandwich for blue-collar workers. It quickly spread, and people around the county started enjoying ground steak.”

Freddy Hiatt purchased the Dairy Center in Mount Airy in the 1990s and learned ground steak’s history from previous owner, Gene Fleming, who opened the eatery in 1954.

“It’s a soft, tender type of meat, and it does kind of melt in your mouth,” Hiatt says. “You can eat it without a lot of heavy chewing. Some people use ground chuck. We use the ground beef with higher fat to get a better flavor, a better taste. That’s what we’ve done all the years I’ve been here, and Gene did the same. I’ve always said if it works, there’s no reason to change it.”

While the basics of making ground steak are similar, recipes vary per restaurant, as does the presentation. Some serve it on a plate (minus the bun) accompanied by sides. Others put ground steak on a breakfast biscuit on thick slices of bread.

The ground steak recipe at Cousin Gary’s in Pilot Mountain hasn’t changed since Gary Collins founded the diner in 1988. Gary was one of 18 children. They grew up on ground steak, and he made sure to get his mom’s beloved “secret” recipe when he opened.

The recipe stayed a family secret when Gary’s sister, Debbie Butner, bought the eatery, and remains so today as ownership has passed to Debbie’s daughter, Gina Erickson.

“It’s not like a hamburger that is tough, and you have to chew it up,” Erickson says. “When you take a bite, you’re eating it with the slaw and tomato, and it all just kind of comes together in your mouth. It’s REALLY good.”

Although it has a similar consistency, ground steak is not to be confused with a sloppy joe, which is spicier and made with ketchup or Worcestershire sauce and always served on a bun.


To learn more about the rich history of ground steak in Surry County, we suggest this excellent article that appeared in the Mt. Airy News in 2014.