Thursday, November 29, 2018

Searching for Richard Woodruff



Found him!

These increasingly wintry days of late fall serve as an annual reminder to me of one autumn during my childhood in which my father’s Chevy Cavalier developed a coolant leak originating from the heater core, which due to its difficult to access location, is a labor-intensive and costly part to replace. My father, being frugal and not terribly technically inclined, balked at the quote he got from the mechanic to repair the leak, and upon hearing the mechanic reply that he could simply bypass the leaking heater core with a nice cheap length of rubber hose, jumped at the opportunity to save a few hundred dollars, perhaps not fully understanding that the hack would leave him without a heater in his car.

My younger brother’s fifth birthday came a few weeks later in early December. At the time, he was obsessed with trains, and my mother made arrangements for my brother and a few of his friends to take a short ride on a train pulled by a vintage steam locomotive. The plan was that my mother would haul the preschoolers in her toasty warm Ford Taurus wagon, to the rail yard where the train departed, while my father and I would show up early in the aforementioned heatless Chevy and purchase tickets for the group.

We left the house early that morning, which just happened to be the first bitterly cold day of the season with temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit), apocalyptically cold by Central Kentucky standards. My father and I got in the car and shivered our way to what turned out to be a deserted railyard outside of Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced by locals as Vur-sails). We sat and waited for someone to show up. I was ten years old, and had been enjoying this chilly adventure with my father, until we had been sitting in the car waiting for twenty minutes or so, and noticed how cold I was becoming, even in my puffy blue winter coat and acid washed Bugle Boy Jeans. I regretted not wearing more layers, and my father was pretty clearly regretting not having his car fixed properly. It was a solid hour of sitting in the frigid car before someone showed up to sell us tickets, and good while longer before my mother showed up with my brother and his friends to board the train.

To this day, I remember that day being the coldest I have ever felt, and I say that having lived in Michigan and Montana for the past ten years. Following the ordeal of enduring the frozen car, my father rewarded my suffering with breakfast at the nearby Shoney’s restaurant, where we lingered, grazing from the weekend breakfast buffet until feeling returned to our extremities so we could brave the frosty drive home. I think it was that day that sparked my lifelong sense that my younger brother received preferential treatment from my parents. After all, he never had to suffer near-hypothermia in an economy sedan to ensure I had a happy birthday, but the ordeal also gave me a memorable experience with my dad, and sparked my love of Shoney’s.

From then on, every time our family went out to dinner for my birthday or as the result of me bringing home an acceptable report card, I’d ask to eat at Shoney’s, where I’d get their spaghetti and meatballs, a side of baby back ribs, or the seafood buffet if we happened to be there on a Friday. My parents were Shoney’s fans too. We’d stop there to eat on several family vacations through the south, and I even remember staying at a Shoney’s Inn motel once back when some Shoney’s restaurant locations had Shoney’s-branded motels nearby, not unlike the Howard Johnson’s locations that sprang up in the sixties. Sadly, my relationship with Shoney’s wasn’t destined to last. Sometime around my late middle school/early high school years, all the Shoney’s locations in and around Lexington closed suddenly.

It’s at this point where readers not in the know are beginning to wonder why I’m talking about Shoney’s during Big Boy month. It may come as a surprise to some of you that Shoney’s founder Alex “Shoney” Schoenbaum was a Big Boy franchisee, and that until 1976, Shoney’s was known as Shoney’s Big Boy. The separation from the Big Boy system came as the result of Big Boy looking to set itself apart from other Big Boy Restaurants, and expand beyond their Big Boy territory which included several southern states.

Eat’n Park, another former Big Boy franchisee with locations mainly in and around Pittsburgh has a similar story. Eat’n Park founders Larry Hatch and Bill Peters became Big Boy franchisees when Bob Wian was looking to expand his empire’s territory. Wian offered many early franchisees a 25 year agreement with a $1 per year franchise fee as a means of growing his brand quickly. Like many early Big Boy chains, Eat'n Park started in a drive-in format before transitioning to indoor table service, hence the name Eat'n Park. When Eat’n Park’s 25 year agreement expired in 1974, management opted to leave the Big Boy system and operate independently.

As a result, both Eat ‘n Park and Shoney’s expanded outside their respective territories, and now have locations within 65 miles of each other in Eastern Ohio. I’d characterize both brands as reasonably healthy regional chains, but given that they’re both pieces that have literally broken off from the then-larger Big Boy chain I’m considering them appropriate to write about here. My goal was to dine at both Eat’n Park and Shoney’s to see if I could spot any Big Boy influence more than four decades after each chain had renounced its Big Boy affiliation.

 There I was driving around, the east side of Ohio,
I asked directions from some no-name chump, he looked kind of like a rhino.
He told me that his favorite warrior princess was Xena
I stomped on his feet, and asked "Where should I eat?"
He yelled "Eat'n Park Medina!" ♬

Eat'n Park Medina.


My first stop was the Eat’n Park located in Medina, the funkiest, coldest town in Ohio. My experience with Eat’n Park is limited. Not since my great uncle Bluto Actionsdower’s funeral in Steubenville in 2008 had I dined at an Eat'n Park location. Come to think of it, that might be the only time I’ve been to an Eat’n Park. I showed up late on a Sunday afternoon for an early dinner, and stood around in the unusually spacious lobby, admiring the pies in the display case below the counter waiting to be seated. I was shown to a narrow booth near the salad bar. I was pleased to see that this salad bar appeared to be of higher quality than the ones I had encountered in the past at both Big Boy and Frisch’s Big Boy. It even sported a sign advising parents to accompany small children. To my left, on the half wall dividing the adjacent rows of booths, there was a vintage printed directory advertising Eat’n Park Big Boy with the Big Boy himself prominently displayed. Likewise, the menu featured an item known as a “Super Burger,” which looked familiar, incorporating the Bob’s/Elias Brothers three piece sesame seed bun and Frisch’s tartar sauce.

Note the Smiley cookie on the sign. 

I ordered up a Super Burger, fries, and the salad bar, and began to exercise my primal hunter/gatherer instincts as I piled a plate with salad fixins, another with coleslaw, cornbread, and slices of a sweet cinamony quickbread, which may or may not have contained pumpkin, plus a cup of the potato soup my waitress had recommended. Despite the odd hour and the mostly deserted dining room, it was all fresh and delicious.

Behold Eat'n Park's bounty!


My burger and fries arrived when I was halfway through the bounty I had collected from the salad bar. I was pleased to see that the burger was cooked properly and had patties larger than the standard Big Boy, but smaller than the Super Big Boy. It was also topped with a pickle, like the Super Big Boy I had at Azar’s. The taste was not dissimilar to an increasingly hard to find well-made Frisch’s Big Boy, with the welcome addition of sesame seeds. The fries, and salad bar coleslaw were unremarkable.

Expectation...

...is reasonably close to reality. 

I will! Thanks, cookie bag!


I finished the meal with some fresh fruit from the salad bar and a smiley cookie, both an inexpensive dessert item, and a mascot, introduced in the mid eighties, to fill the void left by the Big Boy mascot. The Smiley cookie is everywhere on Eat’n Park marketing and signage, so it felt wrong not to get one. I found it to be a perfectly acceptable iced sugar cookie.

The cookie mascot is everywhere, including this rare bathroom-based food advertisement. 

While I wasn't officially eating at a Big Boy, I left Eat'n Park feeling like I'd had an especially good Big Boy meal, and gotten a decent value for my money. My bill was a couple dollars less than at Frisch's and at the Big Boy in Michigan, and I feel like I had gotten more food that was of a higher quality. The restaurant felt clean and reasonably modern, and the staff was professional and courteous. My friend, Mike, who runs Houston Historic Retail, recently asked me if Big Boy would be better had Eat'n Park and Shoney's not left the brand. My reply to him was that Big Boy as a whole wouldn't be any better, and that Eat'n Park and Shoney's would probably be worse. Eat'n Park in particular really seems to have taken the basic Big Boy concept and tweaked it to appeal to modern clinentele in a manner that has eluded both Big Boy and Frisch's. Despite the lack of current Big Boy affiliation, my experience at Eat'n Park was my second favorite of Big Boy month, closely following Azar's.



My Shoney's experience on the other hand, was... unique. Having spent the night nearby, I stopped into the Dover, Ohio Shoney's for an early lunch around 10:30 the following morning. It happened to be the day after Veterans Day, and I was surprised to find the parking lot nearly full. It was between the breakfast and lunch rush on a Monday morning, so I was anticipating having the place (nearly) to myself. A sign on the door indicated that veterans could eat for free at this particular Shoney's all morning. The promotion certainly seemed to have drawn a crowd.

Classic, but weathered building. 


Everything about the building was a throwback to the Shoney's restaurants I grew up with. Other Shoney's locations I've encountered recently seem to have been recently renovated with updated facades and signage, but that was not the case here. The building was the same '70s era ranch style structure with a low gable on each side. Likewise, all the exterior signs featured the older puffy letter Shoney's logo. The interior looked to date from the early 90s, and I was instantly transported back to the day I thawed out at that Shoney's in Versailles. The color palette was decidedly pastel, and the faux skylight over the buffet was a distinctive feature I had nearly forgotten about, but the memories came rushing back when I saw it. Predictably, the interior of the place felt a little bit tired. The seats in the booth I where I had been seated weren't attached to the floor. One of the lights in the fake skylight flickered a little bit, and the stuffed Shoney bear toys atop the buffet looked as though they'd been there since the Clinton administration. The other diners didn't seem to care though.

The dream of the '90s is alive at Shoney's. Note the various iterations of Shoney Bear.

The Veterans Day crowd at this particular Shoney's skewed older. I'd guess the majority of them were Vietnam-era veterans, most of whom had opted to dine from the buffet, which seemed to contain an odd combination of breakfast foods and lunch/dinner sides and entrees, along with the typical salad bar fare. I was glad I was there for a burger and I didn't have to brave the buffet crowd. Still, the crowded atmosphere made it tough for me to get many pictures of the interior. The Big Boy influence was a little tougher to spot on the Shoney's burger menu than at Eat'n Park. I ordered up a Double Decker burger and fries, figuring I should at least eat a burger with two patties.


The steak knife is necessary to keep the upper layers from sliding off. 


The sandwich that arrived at my table was monstrous. It's two patties each looked to be half pounders, and there were copious amounts bacon and cheese tucked between them. There was no center bun, and no special sauce. There was little, if any Big Boy influence here. Regardless, I felt compelled to eat the whole thing. I had a three and a half hour drive home, and leftovers in a to-go box wouldn't keep that long on the passenger floorboard of my car. I choked the massive beefy, greasy thing down along with the fries, trying, in vain to draw any similarities between it and the Big Boy burgers I'd been eating the rest of the month. Just as the bun, fully saturated in beef and hog fat began to disintegrate in my hands, I spied the dessert menu, and saw that both strawberry pie and hot fudge cake were offered. Both are longtime dessert items at both surviving Big Boy chains. I had found the Big Boy influence. Overjoyed, I ordered a piece of the strawberry pie, only to be told that despite multiple advertisements for it displayed around the restaurant, the seasonally offered pie was out of season and not available. At that point, I asked for my bill. A light slice of strawberry pie was one thing, but I simply couldn't begin to think of eating a dense and rich hot fudge cake after unhinging my jaw to consume that ridiculous burger. Regardless, I was glad to see that the Big Boy influence at Shoney's extends past the breakfast buffet, and the Shoney Bear mascot, which looks suspiciously similar to the Big Boy in a bear suit. Upon returning home, and recovering from my food coma, a little research indicated that the Shoney's Double Decker was perhaps conceived to be the antithesis of the Big Boy hamburger.

The old Shoney's logo is still on display most prominently at this loction.


But the sexy new logo shows up on the menus. 

Around the time of the chain's separation from Big Boy, some unnamed Shoney's executive derided the Big Boy as "A Depression burger, (with) a lot of bread and no meat." They had a point. The base Big Boy is pretty skimpy by modern standards, but the Shoney's Double Decker is most definitely an over-correction that leans heavy on the meat. If I had it to do over again, I think I'd ask for a single patty burger with a side of tartar sauce or thousand island if I wanted to approximate the Big Boy experience at Shoney's, but maybe that would be cheating the arbitrary rules I made for myself on this expedition to various Big Boy and Big Boy-adjacent chains.

I was glad to have found artifacts of the Big Boy brand at both Eat'n Park and Shoney's. Going looking for the remnants of the Big Boy influence at both restaurants may have been my favorite part of Big Boy Month. This post also marks the conclusion of Big Boy month content, at least for this year. I hope you've enjoyed this series. I may try to make it an annual tradition. I'd like to visit one of the few remaining Bob's Big Boys, and perhaps a formerly Big Boy-affiliated JB's restaurant. Both brands exist only on the opposite side of the US from where I live, though. I have yet to board a plane in pursuit of a broken chain, but I may have to one of these days.


11 comments:

  1. I visited a local antique mall with a relative who was in town last week. There was a vintage Big Boy pillow there. I bring it up because you mention how some readers may not associate Shoney's with Big Boy - well, in this instance, she wasn't aware that Big Boy was ever affiliated with anything besides Shoney's! Funny how regional separations work like that. (And yes... I did buy the pillow.)

    As for the new Shoney's logo, I discovered that only recently myself. Has it appeared on the locations near you that have remodeled? I'm not sure I've ever been to a Shoney's (at least not in the past decade, anyway), but I believe there are a couple in and around Memphis. Those probably aren't going to be remodeled anytime soon, however.

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    1. I've seen the new Shoney's logo on a couple of different locations, but the only one I can name offhand is the Grayson, Kentucky Shoney's. It looks like it initially was identical to the location I visited in Dover, Ohio, but was renovated at some point in the past few years.

      I know what you mean about Big Boy regional differences. I thought all Big Boys were Frisch's Big Boys until I moved to Michigan.

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  2. Remind me to tell you about the time I was the Shoney's bear when I borrowed the mascot suit to wear at a PTA function where the school mascot was the cubs. I believe big boy burgers had been consumed inside that sweaty suit because of its distinct and unforgettable sweaty fragrance. Love, Judy

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    1. Sounds no worse than wearing an eagle mascot costume to a Weight Watchers meeting.

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  3. While I have a fleeting affiliation with Eat n' Park (and had wondered what that cookie was on their sign for ages). I have an intimate knowledge of Shoney's. As it quite appealed to my grandparents. Until recently, I had no idea it was ever a part of Big Boy. I had actually incorrectly assumed that it was a clone of Denny's due to the similar menus. In Houston we actually had coexisting Kip's Big Boys and Shoney's locations.

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    1. We had coexisting Shoney's and Frisch's locations in Lexington when I was a kid. After they left the Big Boy system, Shoney's expanded into the territory of quite a few other Big Boy franchisees. They've since receded quite a bit though.

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  4. Two interesting facts about Shoney's and Big Boy. 1. On the site of the original Parkette drive-in, there's a Shoney's monument topped with a Big Boy statue. 2. Shoney's briefly had 6 locations in MI, at least 3 of which became Big Boy for some period of time.

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    1. Interesting that the Michigan Shoney's kind of went full circle. Any idea of where they were located? I have a friend who has mentioned there was one in Taylor.

      I'll have to check out that Big Boy monument the next time I'm in West Virginia.

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  5. I had no idea that both Eat N Park and Shoney's were originally Big Boys. As a Pittsburgh kid, Eat N Park is definitely my favorite (although I do remember we also had Elby's in the 80s?) and I continue to enjoy all of their menu offerings. The one here in Morgantown isn't the best example of the brand, but it suffices in a pinch.
    Shoney's, also here in Morgantown, is in a modern building less than ten years old, but everyone who eats there manages to get, er, intestinal distress with surprising frequency. I generally do NOT eat there for this very reason, although their breakfast bar in their original location in town was delicious.
    And all these mentions of Frisch's reminded me that they own the local Golden Corral restaurant (which my uncle always referred to as the "Golden TROUGH"). Also not a place I go very often, as the food on their buffet is mediocre at best.

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    1. Elby's is another chain that was a Big Boy franchisee before going independent. They were based, I believe, in Wheeling, WV and were given the metro Pittsburgh territory after Eat'n Park left the Big Boy system. I don't belive there are any Elby's left at this point.

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  6. Having married into an Eat N Park family from Pittsburgh I had never heard of Eat n Parks until the late 90s. No idea they were originally Big Boys.
    Eat N Park tried to expand into more central and eastern PA but they didn't last, unfortunately. Did enjoy a late night meal about a year ago in Greensburg, PA and brought home a dozen Steelers themed smiley faces for the wife and kids.

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