Sunday, November 11, 2018

Heartbreak on the Lake



Hi everybody. How’s your Big Boy month going so far? Mine’s been pretty good. I’ve mostly been hanging out, driving around, eating at Big Boy. I’m in Ohio today, so naturally, I ate at a Frisch’s Big Boy.

Frisch’s was the only Big Boy I knew for the first couple decades of my life. I grew up hearing my dad telling me about how he and his friends didn’t have cars during college and used to have to walk from their dorm to the local Frisch’s Big Boy for dinner when they felt like living it up, and eating food that didn't come from the university dining hall. I’m sure he was trying to use stories of his simple lifestyle and limited means in his college days to illustrate to me how I should appreciate the things I have, but I mostly just fixated on the part about Frisch’s and how they put tartar sauce on their burgers. That and the giant fiberglass Big Boy statues out front of the restaurants intrigued me from an early age. I was a weird kid. I remember eating at Frisch’s a handful of times during my early childhood and finding it generally favorable. Later, when I was in high school, a brand new Frisch’s opened up nearby, and my friends and I would often hang out there. I quickly became a fan of the aforementioned tartar sauce-topped Big Boys and the weekend breakfast buffet. I left Frisch’s behind when I moved to the land of the Big Boy chain formerly known as Elias Brothers, but I would occasionally stop in when I was travelling through Frisch’s territory, and usually found they offered pleasant experiences with good food at a reasonable price. 

In 2012, I moved to Montana and didn’t eat at Big Boy for four years. Upon my return, I visited a Frisch’s, I found something was very wrong. Prices had increased and food quality had decreased. Staff were less courteous. The once sparkling dining rooms seemed dingy. The shiny new Frisch’s that opened when I was in high school went out of business not long after my ten year class reunion. I tried visiting a few different Frisch’s locations, stretching from Toledo to Cincinnati to Columbus, and while some locations put too little tartar sauce on the burger and others put too much on, none of them could find the sweet spot, and I couldn’t get out the door for less than $15. Something had happened to my beloved Frisch’s while I was in the wild west. The beloved burger joint from my father’s stern lectures was no longer worth visiting.

Cincinnati restaurateur Dave Frisch was the original franchisee of Bob Wian’s Big Boy. Seeking to establish a national presence and prevent imitators from using the Big Boy name outside of the Southern California market, Wian offered Frisch the territory of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida for a franchise fee of one dollar per year. Frisch would make the Big Boy sandwich his own by ditching Wian’s red relish and adding tartar sauce and pickles. He also got rid of the sesame seeds on the signature three piece bun, not unlike the bun of the Big Mick created by Cleo McDowell, who by the way, is absolutely a real person and not a fictional character portrayed by that guy who played the dad on Good Times. In Frisch’s early days, even the Big Boy mascot took on its own look, often portrayed with red or blond hair and striped overalls rather than the dark hair and checkered overalls of his west coast counterpart. Frisch’s proved a valuable asset to Bob Wian’s growing empire, serving as an aspirational example and an influencer to other newly-minted Big Boy franchisees in the eastern U.S. Frisch’s weathered the various ownership changes of the Big Boy brand and enjoyed a high level of autonomy over the years. With the bankruptcy of Elias Brothers and their acquisition by Ligget Restaurant Enterprises in the year 2000, Frisch’s became a fully independent chain, losing the all but the Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio territory in the process.

Through all of the myriad changes, Dave Frisch or one of his descendants remained in charge of Frisch’s, at least until 2015 when Frisch’s was acquired by NRD Partners, a private equity firm based in Atlanta. I was in Montana from 2012 until 2016, and returned to find Frisch’s Big Boy was Frisch’s in name only. Still, an ownership change doesn’t necessarily mean a chain would fall into decline. I mean, ownership by private equity firms has worked out great for retail chains like Sears and Toys Я Us. Just kidding, both of those companies went bankrupt, and while Frisch’s doesn’t seem to be in imminent danger of a similar fate, the magic seems to be gone. These, days 96 of the 121 Frisch’s locations are corporate owned. A few have closed here and there, but there hasn’t been a major wave of closures yet. At this point though, it only seems like a matter of time given the noticeable drop in quality.

UFO of brick and stone

I wasn’t looking forward to going back to Frisch’s, but it’s Big Boy month, and in the spirit of the season, I planned a drive down to Port Clinton, Ohio to visit a Frisch’s location that struck me as unique when I viewed it on Google Maps. Constructed out of stone and irregularly laid brick, and sporting a prominent solarium, the Port Clinton Big Boy resembles a spaceship from a civilization made up entirely of inebriated bricklayers. Likely constructed in the 1970s, this style of Frisch’s building is increasingly rare as the chain is largely made up of later builds. The uniqueness of this location continues when you look behind the building, as the parking lot is bordered to the north by Lake Erie, placing the Port Clinton Frisch’s at the top of Ohio.

The condition of the sign is indicative of the condition of the chain as a whole. 
It's tough not to love hamburger wallpaper though. I would put this in my house. 

It was early afternoon on a Sunday when I stopped in for a late lunch, almost exactly a week after I had visited another Big Boy in Warren, Michigan. Unlike the packed Warren location, the Port Clinton Frisch’s was nearly deserted. I chalked this up to the restaurant being located in a tourist town with a population that waxed and waned seasonally. My visit in the middle of Big Boy Month was decidedly off-season in Port Clinton. I noticed that even the Super 8 Motel across the street had closed for the winter as I pulled into the lakefront parking lot. I walked in, and stood alone by the sign instructing me to please wait to be seated as the manager, wearing pants with an elastic waistband and an American flag necktie, and looking like hot sauce magnate and notorious Donkey Kong cheater Billy Mitchell’s less successful brother, made eye contact with me. He proceeded to chat with a regular as if I weren’t standing there eager to spend money. A full minute later, a waitress serving as hostess came to greet and seat me, showing me to a booth not on the restaurant’s north wall with a lake view, but along the east wall, where I had a view of the Burger King next door.

Flavor to table is like farm to table, but without the implication of quality ingredients.


Expectation...


I perused the menu and noticed a larger than life photo of a Big Boy on the first page. I knew that’s what I was having. I was beginning to consider getting the salad bar as well when I looked to my right and noticed an unattended young boy struggling with tongs to build himself a salad. He was far too short for the sneeze guard to be effective, and he was hacking up a proverbial, and perhaps literal lung, as if the stresses of second grade turned the little guy into a two pack a day smoker. Something about seeing a tubercular child retching directly into the romaine made me decide against the salad bar, and when my waitress came, I ordered my Big Boy with onion rings and coleslaw instead of unlimited leafy greens.

...Reality

While my experience at the Port Clinton Frisch’s was fair at best, my waitress was a real standout. She sensed I was ready to order food after I ordered my drink, and was prepared to take my food order. My glass of Diet Dew was never less than half full. She was quick to bring my order from the kitchen, which showed up hot, straight out of the fryer and off the grill. While the table service was impeccable, the food had some deficits. The onion rings were unusually light in color. I overheard another waitress telling a customer the reason for this was they had just changed the oil in the fryer. Okay. No big deal. At least they change the oil, and while the presentation wasn’t great, the onion rings tasted pretty good, sweet with a thin, crispy breading, as they are at every Frisch’s. The Big Boy was another matter entirely.

Perfectly decent slaw. 

Last week, at a former Elias Brothers Michigan Big Boy, I had mediocre service and a perfectly decent burger. Frisch’s in Port Clinton was the complete opposite experience. While my waitress was at the top of her game, the Big Boy burger I received had two tiny dry patties. While its imitator, the Big Mac, uses 1.6 ounce patties compared to the Frisch’s Big Boy’s pair of 2 ounce patties, the Big Mac somehow manages to taste beefier. Maybe the Big Mac has a little less bread, or uses leaner beef, but I suspect overcooking by Frisch’s is the main culprit. What little meat is there tastes like it’s been on the grill too long, prepared by either an inexperienced line cook or under the eye of a manager fearing an e coli outbreak caused by undercooked meat. Additionally, this was a Frisch’s that uses too little tartar sauce, so I ended up with an unpleasantly dry burger that tasted of bread, pickles, and shoe leather. On the bright side, the coleslaw was pretty good. Unlike the Big Boy in Michigan, this slaw actually had decent flavor. That’s what really cemented the Port Clinton Frisch’s as the exact converse of the Warren Big Boy. Imagine if there could be one Big Boy to rule them all, with the Warren, Michigan Big Boy sandwich and the Port Clinton Frisch’s waitstaff and coleslaw. It would be perfect if they could figure a way to keep the kids away from the salad bar. The prospect of eating vegetables was more than enough the keep me away when I was a kid.

Easily the most autumnal thing I've eaten this year


As I finished up my waitress and new best friend asked if I cared for a slice of the seasonal pumpkin cheesecake. I told her she had read my mind. She laughed and returned with the confection quickly. I try to have one slice of pumpkin cheesecake every fall, and this one was a perfectly decent annual treat. I ate it a bit more ravenously than I should have, and of course, my new worst enemy, the manager in the flag necktie, saw fit to flout any semblance of professionalism and comment on my enthusiastic cheesecake consumption as he was running the register where I paid my bill. Somehow the meal I’d just ordered came to 16 bucks and change before a tip. I could have gotten something of roughly equal quality and quantity next door at Burger King for less than half of what I ended up paying after tipping the best waitress ever. For the record, Burger King is perhaps my least favorite national fast food chain, and I still prefer them to the overpriced disappointment of present-day Frisch's.

The view from my table. Tragically, the interior decor of this location was likely updated sometime this century


Sadly, despite being housed in a striking building on a piece of lakefront property and staffed with at least one stellar server did not save this Frisch’s from the creeping sub-mediocrity that has slowly engulfed the entire chain. I left wondering wondering why I had bothered. The slow decline and eventual demise of Frisch’s has begun. Unless NRD Partners starts studying Bob Wian and Dave Frisch’s methods for running a restaurant, Frisch’s Big Boy seems doomed to the fate of so many other long-gone Big Boy franchisees with names like Marc’s, Kip’s, and Azar’s….


What do you mean there’s an Azar’s still open? Well, I’ve GOT to go check that out!



11 comments:

  1. the Big Boy in Marquette, MI was the nicest looking and had the best food out of all the big boy’s I have gone to recently.

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    1. Come to think of it, I had a decent experience at a Big Boy in Petoskey a year or two ago. I wonder if there's a common factor that makes the Northern Michigan Big Boys superior.

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    2. Might be on to something, time to take a Michigan Big Boy road trip

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  2. I have been to this exact same Big Boy (excuse me, FRISCH'S Big Boy), and you have absolutely encapsulated the full dining experience. (There is a pretty nice one in Bowling Green, though.)

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    1. I'll have to give that one a shot sometime. Thanks for the tip.

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  3. Your experience at Frisch's mirrors mine from around 3 or 4 years ago at a Cleveland location. Perfectly fine service, but the food just isn't right...

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    1. You’d think that they’d at least get the Big Boy burger right. I honestly would have preferred mediocre service and decent food.

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  4. This place was definitely built during the Marriott era. A slightly unique version of a barely remodeled MI Big Boy. I hope the food and service are good at Azar's!

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  5. It's interesting that you mentioned your diet MTN Dew always being refilled. A few months ago, there was an announcement about Frisch's switching back to Coke. I guess not all of them have switched!

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    1. I remember hearing that too now that you mention it. It must be a slow rollout, probably starting in Cinyand reaching outlying locations like this one later.

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