Sunday, November 24, 2019

Every Good Boy Does Fine

Welcome to Big Boy, home of the Big Boy. Can I take your order? 

With its unique status as a chain of chains, the Big Boy brand is full of stories of regional chains that came and went, rebranded, or have been slowly fading away for decades. The Big Boy Wikipedia page has a long list of Big Boy regional franchisees whose Big Boy sub-chains have long ago gone extinct. Others like Shoney's, Eat 'n Park, and JB's would secede from the Big Boy empire and continue to do business without the Big Boy name attached to their own, though similarities to the Big Boy brand would often persist. Today, two completely separate chains are left using the Big Boy name, the Cincinatti-based Frisch's, and the Warren, Michigan based Big Boy Restaurants, LLC, formerly Elias Brothers, that once controlled the entirety of the Big Boy brand.

With the exception of five Southern California Bob's Big Boys, three Cleveland-area Big Boys, and the one oddball Big Boy in North Dakota, all of the Big Boy Restaurants, LLC locations are in my home state of Michigan. Most of those are former Elias Brothers Big Boy locations. Brothers Fred, John, and Louis Elias were the second Big Boy franchisees after David Frisch. In 1987, Elias Brothers would acquire the Big Boy brand from Marriott, who had bought the chain from Bob Wian, its founder, in 1967. The already fractured Big Boy empire would crumble under Elias Brothers' ownership, which culminated in the 2000 bankruptcy that led to Frisch's becoming totally separate chain, and the purchase of the remainder of the Big Boy brand by Robert Ligget Jr. who phased out the Elias Brothers name, making all Elias Brothers Big Boy locations simply Big Boys. Last year, Ligget sold Big Boy to a consortium of Michigan investors after 18 years of neglect, mismanagement, and restaurant closures. The new owners have expressed a goal of expanding from 75 present locations to 100 within two years and 200 within seven years.

Last year's Big Boy month post that focused on the Michigan-based Big Boy chain contained accounts of poor experiences with Big Boy locations I'd had in the past, plus one so-so experience at the Warren, Michigan Big Boy, a stone's throw from their corporate headquarters. My implicit goal this Big Boy month is to experience the best and most unique locations in the remnants of the Big Boy empire. My trip to five different Frisch's locations a couple weeks back yielded mixed results, so when it came to planning a trip covering the Michigan Big Boy chain, I needed a new game plan. I found a list of all operating Big Boy Restaurants, LLC locations on their website, and one by one, Googled each location and looked at their customer reviews, until I had found five Big Boy locations that had more than four stars. I then visited all five of them.

Meal #1
Location: 2701 East Monroe Road, Tecumseh, Michigan
Google Rating: 4.3 stars, 646 reviews
Order: Super Big Boy, mandatory fries, soup and salad bar, hot fudge ice cream cake, Diet Pepsi

A couple weekends ago, Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I drove out of the sprawling Detroit suburbs and into Tecumseh, a little town southwest of Ann Arbor that is home to both a Wendy's with a deeply troubling sign and the last ShopKo Store I visited before that chain's near complete liquidation over the summer. Right across the street from the carcass of that ShopKo (which was originally a Pamida), is what 646 Google users say is the best Big Boy in Michigan.

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I noticed a few things walking through the parking lot. For one thing, it was the fullest I'd ever seen any Big Boy parking lot outside of breakfast hours. Additionally, an oddly-placed fire hydrant was situated immediately adjacent to the classic fiberglass Big Boy statue out front, and signs on the windows of the entryway proclaimed the name of the place was "Tuckey's Big Boy." As we proceeded inside, it became clear that we were in for a unique Big Boy experience. Though the outside looked like every other Big Boy built in Michigan in the '70s and '80s, the interior had undergone a unique remodel, and for some reason, was firefighter themed. Photos of firefighters and firefighting equipment lined the walls, and a good many tables had lamps made from fire helmets above them. Unlike Frisch's, the majority of Michigan Big Boys are franchisee-owned, and it's clear this particular franchisee wanted to make their restaurant unique.

This is also the first Big Boy I recall encountering that serves beer and wine. 
Is this firehouse motif doing anything for you? 
That helmet is a lamp, hanging from a firehose. 

Great Super Big Boy, disappointing fries

My hot fudge cake and Esmeralda's cookie sundae

The name, "Tuckey's Big Boy" seemed the most unusual. Since 2000, the only Big Boy Restaurants, LLC locations to have a name before Big Boy were the California Bob's Big Boys, or so I thought. The owner of Tuckey's Big Boy, presumably someone named Tuckey, seems to be adhering to the historic franchisee name+Big Boy nomenclature, and corporate seems to be allowing it. I'd like to see more of this style of branding making a comeback as a nod to Big Boy's heritage.

Bountiful salad bar
Toy firetruck parked atop the salad bar

Esmeralda and I were seated immediately at one of the few open tables in the restaurant packed with a small town Saturday night crowd. The salad bar was nicely stocked, and well maintained, my Big Boy and fries showed up quickly despite the packed dining room. The Big Boy was fresh off the grill and dressed with the lettuce and proprietary Thousand Island sauce that Michigan Big Boys use, but my fries were cold and limp, just as they were at the Warren Big Boy last year. Any sandwich you order at a Michigan Big Boy automatically comes with fries whether you want them or not. Given the poor quality of the fries that were foisted on me in Tecumseh, I doubt they'd sell many fries if they were optional when ordering a burger. Fries aside, Esmeralda, who grew up in Michigan with Elias Brothers Big Boy summed this place up on the drive home when she said, "That felt like what Big Boy used to be." With its impeccable service, mostly above average food, and unique name and decor, the Tecumseh Big Boy has the not quite standardized, but high quality feel that a franchised Big Boy in the heyday of the brand.

Meal #2
Location: Big Boy 28340 Ford Road, Garden City, Michigan
Google Rating: 4.2 stars, 396 reviews
Order: Super Big Boy, mandatory fries, salad bar, Diet Pepsi

The Garden City Big Boy has been a Big Boy twice. 

The Garden City Big Boy has an interesting history. It originally opened in the 1960s as an Elias Brothers Big Boy, but sometime between then and 2009, (Likely around the time of the 2000 bankruptcy and ownership change) it lost its Big Boy flag and began operating under the name, Toast. I ate there once ten years ago, when it was Toast, and remember it being a lot like Big Boy. I vaguely remember seeing double deck burgers on the menu while I was there for a weekend breakfast buffet. Toast closed in 2016, and this spring, it became a Big Boy once more, the first to open following the 2018 ownership change that came on the heels of the closure of many Detroit area Big Boys.

Another great salad bar. 

Here's what I foraged from the salad bar. 

I came in for lunch on a weekday, and felt mild concern when I saw plastic sheeting draped over the bay windows on one side of the building, presumably an attempt to prevent water leaks cheaply, and hopefully temporarily. My concerns melted away once I was inside and found the interior had been completely remodeled since I was last there in the the Toast days. Photos of old Elias Brothers Big Boy locations hung on every wall. Booths had been replaced or reupholstered, and funky Sputnik-shaped space age chandeliers lit the room. It felt modern, but with appropriate nods to the past, yet standardized in a way that Tuckey's Big Boy was not.

Modern interior, retro lighting. 

Great burger, terrible fries 

I ordered my usual Super Big Boy and salad bar, and found the latter freshly stocked for the day, which allowed me to make a nice salad for myself. The same broccoli cheese soup with chunks of ham that I'd had at Tuckey's found its way to my table here as well. The soup was made from scratch and had big chunks of broccoli, and all the salad ingredients were fresh and perfectly chilled. As before the Big Boy arrived at my table quickly fresh off the grill, and the fries were colder and limper than the ones in Tecumseh had been. I only bothered eating a couple of them before giving up entirely. Again putting the fries aside however, it was an above average experience. I'm glad to have a well-run Big Boy so close to where I live and work. I might even come back to this one when it's not November simply because a good salad bar is tough to come by, and the salad bar at this Big Boy was great.

Meal #3
Location: Big Boy 6301 Dixie Highway, Bridgeport, MI
Google Rating: 4.1 stars 548 reviews
Order: Big Boy, mandatory fries, pumpkin pie, Diet Pepsi

The firehouse-themed Tecumseh Big Boy was likely decorated with the intent of being unique, and the Garden City Big Boy was remodeled with an eye toward the future of the Big Boy brand in Michigan. Their counterpart in Bridgeport is no less unique in that it's firmly rooted in the past. While perfectly clean and nicely maintained, its clear the interior and exterior of the building have not seen a significant update in the past 20 years or so. In fact, the dining room feels nearly identical to that of the long ago closed and demolished Dearborn Big Boy, which had the very same decor package when I was a regular there a decade ago.

The checkered indoor awning really takes me back. 

It was late on a Saturday morning, peak breakfast buffet hours, likely peak hours in general for most Big Boys. After fawning over the gaggle of young children in the group in front of me, the hostess returned to indifferently seat me, a lone adult man. As I passed the glass case of pies by the register, I noticed a whole strawberry pie on display.

The fries are better in Bridgeport. 

Consolation pies. 

My one regret in arbitrarily designating November Big Boy month is that it's difficult to impossible to find a Big Boy serving its signature, seasonal strawberry pie in late autumn. When my waitress appeared, I asked if they were serving the dessert after ordering my Big Boy and fries. She told me that the strawberry pie wasn't available as it was seasonal, and informed me I'd be eating pumpkin pie instead. I didn't argue with this assertion in the interest of not being difficult, plus who can complain about pumpkin pie? I assume the strawberry pie in the case up front is inedible and used only for display. Perhaps it's months-old, and/or preserved with a thin coat of clear resin.

Strawberry pie, taunting me. 

My Big Boy, tasted as a Big Boy should, though less meaty since the last two since I ordered a quarter pound standard Big Boy this time as opposed to the half pound Super Big Boys before, but to my surprise and delight the mandatory fries that came with it were actually hot and crispy, as if they had been prepared to order. Likewise the near-mandatory pumpkin pie, while in no way unique among pumpkin pies was a perfectly acceptable autumnal consolation prize in the absence of its elusive vernal counterpart.

Meal #4
Location: 400 South Ripley Boulevard, Alpena, Michigan
Google Rating: 4.1 Stars, 519 reviews
Order: Slim Jim, mandatory fries, salad bar, banana split, Diet Pepsi

I had several different 4.1 star Michigan Big Boys to pick from when planning my trip, but I chose to visit the relatively remote Alpena Big Boy for two reasons, the first being that I had never before visited this part of the state and this felt like as good an excuse as any, but the reason more relevant to Broken Chains is that the Alpena Big Boy began life in the late '70s as a Sambo's restaurant, and became a Big Boy in the early '80s following Sambo's closure. Most Sambo's locations had closed by the mid 1980s following a bankruptcy brought on by mismanagement and several hasty attempts to modernize the chain's racially insensitive name and marketing. Incidentally, there's still a single Sambo's open in Santa Barbara, California, owned by the grandson of one of the chain's co-founders, but that's another blog post.

Slim Jim and the best fries of the trip

Upon arrival at the Alpena Big Boy, it was clear its exterior looked nothing like the corporate architecture from any era of Big Boy, and aside from the red and white Big Boy checkerboard pattern along the roofline, it likely looked much as it did as a Sambo's. The interior was no more conventional, as it still retained what I assumed to be the Sambo's floorplan, L-shaped with a long serving counter at the front of the building and an area with tables and booths at one side. A tiny salad bar sat at the convergence of the L, less than half the size of any other Big Boy salad bar I've ever encountered. I doubt it was there in the Sambo's days, and was likely added during the Big Boy conversion. My surroundings while perfectly clean, were even more dated than the Bridgeport Big Boy. The seats of the boot I was seated in reminded me of the Golden Girls' couch.

Thank you for being a booth. 
Very un-Big Boy serving counter, likely a Sambo's artifact
Impressive banana split. 

It was around this time that I remembered Big Boy sold more than just burgers, so I ordered up a Slim Jim, a ham and cheese sandwich on a hoagie roll, flattened on the grill and cut diagonally, essentially a simplified Cuban sandwich, minus the roast pork and with tartar sauce instead of mustard. I don't recall ever having one before, but I found it to be a unique and pleasant sandwich esperience, if slightly messy. The fries at the Alpena Big Boy were the hottest and crispiest of my trip. It seems the Big Boy fries get better the further north you travel. Michigan Big Boys focus heavily on their proprietary ice creams, and I don't recall ever having anything other than a scoop of vanilla in the middle of a hot fudge cake at a Michigan Big Boy. As long as I was sampling the non-burger offerings of the Big Boy menu, I took this opportunity to order a banana split, which allowed me to sample the Big Boy chocolate and strawberry ice cream in addition to the stalwart vanilla. The chocolate was perfectly fine, but the strawberry stood out as unique. It had unabashedly artificial salmon color with few, if any strawberry pieces. Still, it had a real strawberry flavor, with what I thought might be a slightly malty undertone, though I couldn't be sure with all the other flavors of the sundae's toppings fighting to drown out the strawberry.

Meal #5
Location: Big Boy 200 West Maple Road, Troy, Michigan
Google Rating: 4.2 stars, 521 reviews
Order: Beef stew, coleslaw two scoops strawberry ice cream, Diet Pepsi

Big Boy, after dark. 

For my final Michigan Big Boy stop, I elected to dine at the Troy, Michigan Big Boy. It felt the least unique of the trip, thanks in part to my meal there following my stop at the former Sambo's packed with '80s decor in Alpena. Like the Garden City Big Boy, its counterpart in Troy had been renovated recently and was decorated with the same aesthetic, right down to the Sputnik chandeliers. Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I stopped in for a weeknight dinner, and found the dining room was around half full.

This location had a lot of Big Boy merch for sale. I may need to go back and buy some or all of it. 

We were seated immediately and greeted by a pleasant if forgetful server who brought us water instead of the Diet Pepsi we had ordered and who I had to remind to bring the coleslaw that came with my beef stew, which is one of several new additions to the Michigan Big Boy menu. I found it to be the perfect meal for an unseasonably cold Michigan November evening, and was pleased to find it served over real mashed potatoes, though they could have let it stew a little longer, as the baby carrots and mushrooms floating in the stew were almost completely raw, though the beefy chunks were cooked through. I still ate everything, because despite the unsettling squish of a raw mushroom and snap of a raw carrot in my mouth, it still tasted great. Likewise Big Boy seems to have switched coleslaw recipes since last year. The new slaw is markedly more flavorful and more fresh than the tasteless mush I had during Big Boy Month last year. As I suspected, the strawberry ice cream does have a slight malted flavor, and the more of it I eat, the more I enjoy it. It may become my new go-to Michigan Big Boy dessert order regardless, though weirdly, this time I had a whole frozen strawberry embedded in one of the scoops, but no evidence of strawberry pieces elsewhere. Just as strangely, the fries that came with Esmeralda's Big Boy while reasonably fresh, were a completely different type than I had encountered in my travels to other Michigan Big Boys. While other locations were serving medium sized, skin-on fries, these were skinless and lightly battered. The couple that I sampled were above average, but the inconsistency stood out and showed that the brand's new owners are perhaps trying new things and attempting to improve their inherited shortcomings.

Tasty, if undercooked stew, unique fries. 

Well, if you insist, placemat.

Unconventional but delicious strawberry ice cream, and Esmeralda's second cookie sundae. 

A year ago, Big Boy Restaurants, LLC found themselves with a shrinking chain of dated and deteriorating restaurant properties operating in the dying full service family restaurant segment. It's clear they're making efforts to improve existing properties, modernize menus and streamline service at their legacy locations. Though decor, branding, and architecture were anything but consistent at the five well-rated locations I visited, the quality of food and service were uniformly above average. If these locations are representative of the whole chain, it's clear that Big Boy Restaurants, LLC is committed to their goal of more than doubling their existing footprint to 200 locations in the next seven years. This exploration has left me with a vastly improved opinion of the Big Boy brand in Michgan and will likely see me visiting Michigan Big Boy locations not in search of blog fodder, but out of a desire for the food and experience, though I'll probably beg and plead to get a burger without fries on my next Big Boy trip.

Raxgiving is less than a week away. I hope to see several of you there.

(Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout for 15% your entire order, through the end of the year)


  1. Elby's in Wheeling is named for the Bros? Also love the title. Judy

    1. Nope. Elby's was named for a brand of flavoring syrup its founders marketed in a previous business venture. Funnily enough however, Elby's Big Boy was also founded by three brothers. There are more details on Wikipedia:

  2. I have enjoyed this Big Boy run! There are rumblings that we might get a new location (all of ours closed and switched to Denny's at least a couple of decades ago) and I'd welcome it. I hope you have the happiest of Raxgivings! My health this year has turned, otherwise that 8 hour drive would be NBD.

    1. Sorry to hear about your rotten luck health-wise. Hope you wind up with a new Big Boy, at least.