Sunday, November 4, 2018

Your Chain of Chains

In 1908 the Sunshine Biscuit Company introduced a new cookie consisting of two round chocolate wafers, each embossed with a decorative pattern, sandwiching a layer of sweet white cream filling. They named their product Hydrox after the constituent atoms of a water molecule to signify purity. Four years later, their competitor, the National Biscuit Company introduced a blatant knockoff of the Hydrox cookie with drastically similar round chocolate wafers and cream filling. National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco, called their Hydrox knockoff the Oreo, and with it, proceeded to dominate the market. Today, Hydrox cookies barely even manage to have a cult following. They go in and out of production sporadically, depending on which conglomerate owns the rights to the name. Even when they’re being made, they can be tough to find in stores and even online. The few people who are even aware of the Hydrox cookie today would likely consider it to be an Oreo imitator, even though it was actually the Hydrox that inspired the Oreo. The Hydrox cookie shows us that being first to market with a new product does not guarantee success or marketplace domination, especially when competitors are lurking in the shadows ready to imitate your good ideas, and learn from your missteps. This kind of thing happens constantly in the chain restaurant industry. Wendy’s is a prime example. They got their start shamelessly imitating Kewpee just as Kewpee was fading into obscurity, and eventually emulated Rax with their in-store salad and hot food bars in the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, Wendy’s culinary plagiarism seems insignificant when you realize that the most famous burger from the world’s most prolific burger joint, is nothing more than a cheap copy.

Ask the average person who invented the double deck hamburger, and they’re likely to say it was McDonald’s with the Big Mac. It’s easy to see why someone would assume this. The Big Mac with its two beef patties, special sauce, and three piece sesame seed bun is ubiquitous in North America. It’s perhaps the best known menu item from the 14,000 U.S. location-strong cultural icon. The truth is, McDonald’s wasn’t the first to serve a double deck burger. Bob Wian pioneered the concept at his Glendale, California restaurant, Bob’s Pantry in 1937. Seeking to wow, and perhaps flabbergast his customers who requested something new and spectacular, Wian constructed the burger that would become known as the Big Boy, a sandwich Bob Wian constructed to look like a ridiculous tower of bread and meat. His depression-era customers, used to skimpy single-patty burgers, and decades from today’s Thickburgers, Baconators, and Double Downs were floored by his creation. The hamburger that Wian built as little more than a joke between him and his regular customers became an overnight sensation. Wian would eventually name his creation the Big Boy, after a nickname he had given to Richard Woodruf a six-year-old customer at his restaurant. Likewise, a restaurant mascot was designed based on young Woodruf’s likeness. These were the humble beginnings of the Big Boy brand.

At this point, those of you reading from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Southern California, and perhaps even Japan are exclaiming something to the effect of “Zap, Big Boy isn’t a broken chain! They’re everywhere!” I generally assumed the same for a long time, having lived in Big Boy country for most of my life, but once you’re more than 100 miles from the I-75 corridor, or south of the Tennessee/Kentucky state line, the fiberglass Big Boy statues suddenly disappear. This proves that Big Boy is far from a national brand, as it occupies only a relatively small specific region of the US. But how did a brand born in California end up with such a large presence on the other side of the country with only a few token locations on the west coast? Large gaps in operating territory are a hallmark of a broken chain, and a good indication that there’s a story of former greatness.

Bob Wian’s single restaurant had grown to a local chain by the early fifties when he began franchising the Big Boy sandwich, mascot, and name to other existing restaurant operators, who would add the Big Boy elements to their menus and restaurants. Some of Wian’s earliest franchisees were Dave Frisch from Cincinatti and brothers Fred, John, and Louis Elias from Detroit, who began operating their existing restaurants as Frisch’s Big Boy and Elias Brothers' Big Boy respectively. This practice of franchising a brand to already-established restaurants spawned a series of Big Boy chains with different names in different markets, effectively creating a large national chain, composed of smaller regional sub-chains. Individual Big Boy franchisees had significant differences in their restaurants and menus, aside from the double deck burger and Big Boy signs and statues. In fact, even the burger bun and toppings varied depending on which Big Boy chain was serving it. For instance Bob Wian’s Big Boy was topped with red relish, a mixture of ketchup and pickle relish, whereas David Frisch’s Big Boy used tartar sauce, and the Elias Brothers used a thousand island-based sauce. These differences persist to this day. All told, there were around 29 separate regional Big Boy chains with names spanning the alphabet from Abdow’s Big Boy to Yoda’s Big Boy. This loose affiliation of regional Big Boy franchisees effectively made Big Boy a national brand, with each regional franchisee paying fees back to Bob Wian’s Wian Enterprises. In 1967 Wian Enterprises was purchased by Marriott, who at the time was looking to expand their restaurant business. Around this time, all Marriott-owned locations adopted the Bob’s Big Boy name. The chain grew through the seventies to somewhere north of 1000 locations in 1979. It was around this time, though when things started to fall apart. As the initial 25 year franchise agreements began to lapse, regional franchisees left the Big Boy chain to become separate, entirely independent chains. Southern franchisees Shoney’s, and Pittsburgh-area franchisees Eat ‘n Park, and Elby’s all left Big Boy at around the same time. By the late ‘80s Marriott wanted out of the restaurant business, and sold the Big Boy name, and all remaining corporate locations to Elias Brothers in 1987. Elias Bros would go on to declare bankruptcy in 2000 and be acquired by Robert Ligget Junior’s Liggett Restaurant Enterprises. At the same time, Frisch’s became a completely separate corporate entity, linked only to the other Big Boy chain by name, and confined to Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Big Boy came into existence, established itself as a drive-in restaurant chain, and later a sit down chain, just as the fast food industry as we know it today was finding footing. Seemingly every fast food burger chain had an imitation of the Big Boy sandwich, and I’ve sampled quite a few of them for Broken Chains. In addition to the Big Mac, the Burger Shef Big Shef, the Dog n Suds Texas Burger, the Frostop Orbit Burger, and the Jerry’s J-Boy were all Big Boy imitators. In fact, Jerry’s in particular seemed to be a pretty blatant copy of Frisch’s entire operation. None of the triple bun wonders had the staying power of the Big Mac, though. McDonald’s thrived with the Big Mac on their menu while Big Boy quite literally fell apart, firmly cementing the Big Boy as the Hydrox of hamburgers.

Big Boy today is a literal broken chain, fractured into multiple, barely related pieces, with Big Boy Restaurants International LLC, a descendant of Liggett Restaurant Enterprises operating 77 US locations, mostly in Michigan, simply called “Big Boy,” plus five surviving Southern California Bob’s Big Boys. It’s estranged cousin, Frisch’s Big Boy, as of 2015 a subsidiary of parent company NRD Capital, operates 121 locations in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Both chains have significantly shrunk recently closing multiple locations. Big Boy and Frisch’s Big Boy locations I’ve visited in the past couple of years have deteriorated noticeably in terms of overall appearance as well as quality of food and service. Additionally, several former Big Boy franchisees still exist today as separate regional chains. There’s quite a bit to unpack and experience with regard to the Big Boy brand and its remnants. In order to explore the modern legacy of Big Boy fully, I’m going to declare November 2018 Big Boy Month. All my blog posts this month will be about my experiences at locations chains related to the fallen Big Boy empire, so pull on your red and white checkerboard overalls, hoist your burger tray high, and embark with me on a journey through chain restaurant history.


  1. Oh man, I'm hyped for this! Also, I loved the Hydrox comparison!

  2. You're going to fly out to LA to go to the Bob's Big Boy?

    1. I probably won't make it out there this month, but I have a growing list of places I'd like to visit in Southern California. A trip to L.A. would definitely necessitate at least one Bob's Big Boy stop. Maybe I'll make it out there for Big Boy month next November.

  3. One note, Marriott never sold the corporate locations to Elias Brothers. What they sold to them was the actual brand and franchising rights. Marriott continued to operate Big Boys for several years after the sale but they went on to either close or sell them. All the California corporate restaurants were sold to Coco’s/Callows. The east coast ones went to Shoney’s. The only east coast Bob’s left were the ones operated by HMS on turnpikes. Ironically, Elias Brothers went on to buy a bunch of midwestern Shoney’s and converted them to Big Boy. That move helped drive them into bankruptcy.