Saturday, November 30, 2019

New Boy in Town

Big Boy as a brand has lacked a single cohesive identity for the majority of its existence. Between the myriad regional franchisees, each with their own quirks, and the brand's transition from a drive-in to a full service restaurant chain in the 1960s, the Big Boy brand means different things to different people depending upon where they grew up and when. Marriott tried and failed to make Bob's Big Boy a lasting national brand in the 1970s when the loose association of regional Big Boy chains began to fall apart, but for all the instances of divergent and convergent evolution that compose Big Boy's history, one could argue that the smart move would have been to enter the fast food market.

Big Boy was just becoming a well-established brand when Ray Kroc was defining American fast food culture with the ideas he borrowed from the McDonald brothers, and over the next couple of decades, it became clear that fast food was more than a passing fad. In that time, most Big Boy locations had transitioned from drive ins to full service restaurants just in time for the ever-growing fast food chains to move upmarket from the 15 cent, 1.6 ounce hamburgers that helped establish them, and seemingly the logical progression was to double up the meat and place it on a three piece bun. Seemingly every burger chain and countless mom and pops all had their own Big Boy-inspired double deck burgers in the '60s and '70s, and whether you were eating a Big Shef at Burger Chef, a Big Scot at Sandy's, a Club Burger at Carroll's or a Big Mac at McDonald's, you were probably getting a product very similar to what was offered at Big Boy for less money with less hassle.

Rather than forcing Big Boy into the already crowded fast food segment where it already had a brand, Roy Rogers, Marriott opted to increase emphasis on things like salad bars, breakfast buffets, and outstanding service at Big Boy. It worked for a while, sustaining both Frisch's, Bob's and the Big Boy chain formerly known as Elias Brothers into the current century, but as I discussed at length on the occasion of my visit to the final Embers, restaurant chains that offer table service but don't sere alcohol are rapidly dying. The previous owners of the Michigan Big Boy chain knew this and launched a fast casual Big Boy Burgers and Shakes location as a prototype for a modernized Big Boy location. That restaurant is still open east of Cleveland, Ohio, and I have yet to visit it. (I've got to save something for Big Boy Month 2020.) Instead, the Big Boy prototype location that caught my interest is the one that opened this year.

Big Boy Restaurants, LLC has expressed a goal of growing their 75 unit chain to 200 locations in the next seven years, and it would seem that a tool they intend to use to accomplish that goal is to open low-overhead, fast casual Big Boys with limited menus and no waitstaff in strip mall slots. The first location of this type opened in a newly constructed Big Boy Restaurants, LLC-owned strip mall in Southfield, Michigan this summer, and I naturally went to check it out.

What kind of business would do well between a Starbucks and a Big Boy? A mobile phone store? A vape shop? 

From the outside, it looks nothing like any other Big Boy location I've experienced. There's no Big Boy statue out front. The building is a nondescript strip mall, of which Big Boy occupies roughly a third. The two other slots are a Starbucks and a vacant storefront. The sign on Big Boy's portion of the building has a unique lowercase font and a monochromatic Big Boy graphic. The place looks as if Chipotle's marketing team had been tasked with designing a Big Boy location. I visited early on a weekday afternoon between the lunch and dinner rush, and found a few customers scattered about the dining room.
Order line and register, note the menu on the wall to the left of the window. 

The entrance leads straight to an approach to a single register with ample room to accommodate a line of customers, and a printed menu is mounted on the wall to the right of the line. I was pleased to find that in addition to the Michigan style thousand island topped Big Boys, that a California style Bob's Big Boy was offered. I ordered one along with a side of fries and a hot fudge cake. I paid the cashier, was given a numbered card on a tall metal stand and was instructed to sit anywhere I liked. This was nothing like any other Big Boy I had ever visited, but was a welcome change. I procured my customary Diet Dew at the self serve drink fountain and took a seat where I could admire the decor which included a Big Boy word cloud style graphic, and an indoor Big Boy statue that I was pleased to learn is a giant bobble head. An employee delivered my order a few minutes later. I inspected the top bun and found it was indeed topped with the red relish associated with Bob's Big Boy locations on the west coast, which seems to be little more than a mixture of pickle relish and ketchup.


Big Boy founder Bob Wian created this original iteration of the Big Boy to wow his depression-era customers with an comically tall and decadent hamburger, but in this age of ever-increasingly ridiculous fast food sandwiches it feels a little small, even skimpy. After my first bite, I found myself thankful I didn't travel to California to try a Bob's Big Boy this year, because without the tangy Michigan thousand island, or Frisch's signature tartar sauce, Bob's version of the Big Boy tasted like a burger with relish and ketchup, not terribly special and in need of more than a little mustard. The fries were not the worst Michigan Big Boy fries I've encountered.

"Bob's Big Boy"
I hear that in Californy, the relish is red and fire hydrants are green. The streets are paved in avocados, and people wear flip flops to job interviews.   

The employee who served me my burger and fries, noticing I was finishing up, asked if I was ready for my hot fudge cake. I responded in the affirmative, and watched as he struggled with the hot fudge warming and pumping apparatus. He seemed to be having trouble pushing the machine's plunger down to extract the fudge, and when he brought the dessert to my table, I realized why. The hot fudge sauce was not hot, and because of its low temperature, its higher viscosity made it difficult to pump onto the cake, and it was holding its extruded shape, and not melting over the sides like the menu shows. To say the brown logs of not-hot fudge did not appear appetizing was an understatement, but even a bad hot fudge cake is still pretty tasty.

Room temperature fudge cake. The fudge reminds me of a certain Emoji.

I returned to give the new format Big Boy another shot a few weeks later, and found more customers and a more attentive staff along with a busier dining room. This time I ordered my customary Super Big Boy, and found it to be up to the same high standards as other Big Boys I've experienced in the Wolverine state. The location seemed to have worked out the bugs, but I'm still a little hesitant to order another hot fudge cake. Overall, I think I prefer the style of service to the traditional Big Boys. Having a server take your order for a simple burger and fries seems more than a little excessive, and the fast casual format fits a burger-driven menu better. But while I don't miss the overly formal seating and serving protocols of the older Big Boy locations, I can't help but feel like the omission of the salad bar is a glaring error.

I almost always get the salad bar at Big Boy, even when I'm just ordering a burger, and you can make a healthy meal out of just Big Boy's hearty soups and salads. Salad bars are strongly associated with virtually every Big Boy and Big Boy-descended chain. To throw them out along with servers taking orders feels like an over-correction. No one in the quick serve or fast casual segments offers a salad bar, so a salad bar at a fast casual Big Boy feels like a perfect way for them to maintain a cohesive brand identity while setting themselves apart from competitors. Salad bars were a part of Wendy's identity during what I think most would agree was their best era, and the two best surviving Rax locations are the ones that still offer the chain's signature salad bar.

Speaking of, Raxgiving went great. Thanks to Ryan, Mapcat, and my long-suffering mother for making the trek to a remote corner of Kentucky to share an experience with me at the best Rax left. If you didn't make it to Raxgiving this year, don't worry I've already got a similar event, in the works in a less remote location. Raxgiving also marks the end of Big Boy Month, as does November 30th. Normal Broken Chains posts will resume next week.

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)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Lonely Boy

For the second year in a row, I've devoted the entire month of November to blog posts about Big Boy, and I plan on doing so every November for as long as I see fit to keep this blog regularly updated. My reasoning for making November Big Boy Month is the result of Big Boy's expansion strategy which involved selling regional franchises to operators across the country, each of whom added their own name and their own spin to the Big Boy brand. The gradual dissolution of this chain of chains and the decline of the individual regional Big Boy sub-chains makes for a deep well of broken chain stories and experiences to which I can return for many Novembers to come. The discussion of the little differences between different Big Boy operators also serve to break up the monotony of discussing a single brand at length. Menus, logos, and even the Big Boy mascot and burger all have minor variations tied to different regional franchisees, and while most of the variations are insignificant, there are still a few oddities kicking around.

Two completely separate corporate entities use the Big Boy name today. Cincinnati-based Frisch's operates all the Big Boy restaurants in Kentucky, Indiana, and all but two in Ohio, while the Warren, Michigan-based Big Boy Restaurants International, formerly Elias Brothers Big Boy, operates primarily in Michigan, and weirdly also Japan, plus five Bob's Big Boy locations in Southern California, two Big Boys in the Cleveland Ohio area, and a single location in Bismarck, North Dakota. After learning about that single North Dakota location, operating three states away from the next closest Big Boy, I couldn't get it out of my head. Not only was it the only operating Big Boy in the vast Big Boy-less dessert between the Frisch's Big Boys in Indiana and the Bob's Big Boys in California, it was likely the most unique Big Boy in existence, maybe ever. 

Harley McDowell opened the Big Boy Drive-Inn in Bismarck in 1954, using the name without the authorization of Wian Enterprises, then parent company of Big Boy. (Harley McDowell's cousin Cleo McDowell of Queens, New York pulled a similar stunt operating a bootleg McDonald's in the late '80s, shortly before his daughter married Prince Akeem of Zamunda, but that's another story.) Harley McDowell's plagiarism resulted in a trademark infringement suit brought by Wian Enterprises, the outcome of which was, for some reason, McDowell becoming an official Big Boy franchisee, changing the name of his restaurant to McDowell's Big Boy, which against all odds, and in the face of the demise of countless other Big Boy operators, is still in business today, under control of Big Boy Restaurants International, and these days going by the name of Bismarck Big Boy. 

This Big Boy stands guard by the drive thru lane. 

Stranger still, the Bismarck Big Boy, unlike every other extant Big Boy location I know of, has no indoor seating. Service is through a drive thru pickup window only, and the menu has items that you'll find at few other operating Big Boys including fried chicken and pizza burgers. Upon learning all of this I knew it was only a matter of time until I would have no choice but to visit this isolated oddity in the middle of a mostly empty state no one ever thinks about. It was a few weeks ago, when I could no longer resist the call of the world's strangest Big Boy, and took off across the Upper Midwest, making stops at a bootleg Zantigo and a Maid Rite on the way. I found my way to Bismarck on a Saturday afternoon, and headed straight to Big Boy for an early dinner. 

The owners of the Bismarck Big Boy have invested in a trio of order speaker/monitors to keep things running smoothly 

As an early adopter of drive thru service, the entrance to the Bismarck Big Boy's drive thru lane is unconventional and clumsy. I approached the restaurant from the east and found that I had to make a U-turn across three lanes of traffic to enter the drive thru, which connected directly to the main road. It was a more aggressive maneuver than I was used to making for a burger and fries, but one I made nonetheless. It was early in the day, and the dinner rush hadn't hit yet, but I could tell the Bismarck Big Boy was set up for maximum capacity, considering the drive thru had three order speakers, presumably each of which would operate simultaneously to process an three orders at once during peak times. I studied the menu board ahead of me, which seemed impossibly tall. I wanted to sample both the strange menu items as well as the classic Big Boy, and with that in mind, I ordered up a fried chicken breast with gravy and fries, a pizza burger, and a Big Boy, and proceeded toward the triangular canopy that jutted over the drive thru window from the flat roof of the little stone building that housed the kitchen. The short line of cars ahead of me moved quickly, and the employee in the single drive-thru window handed me my order as soon as my payment was processed. I drove onward no more than 50 feet where I found a few parking spots and picnic tables set up in a small park-like area immediately adjacent to the restaurant. 

Big Boy picnic

Pizza burger exterior...

...and cross section. Ignore my ugly thumb. 

It was early enough in the fall that I could comfortably enjoy an outdoor meal in the heart of the 701 area code, so I parked and selected a picnic table upon which I unloaded the plastic bag containing my order. The pizza burger captured my curiosity first. The single two ounce patty topped with american cheese and slightly spicy marinara sauce was nestled between two slices of white bread which had been grilled in a sandwich press. It was exactly as tasty in practice as those ingredients sound on paper. I would have preferred mozzarella cheese, but all in all, it wasn't bad. 

Good gravy!

I continued the parade of Big Boy oddities with the chicken. Various regional Big Boy chains have offered fried chicken off and on over the years. Some Big Boy franchisees also owed KFC franchises and sold KFC chicken in their stores in the early days of the KFC brand. The now-defunct Manners Big Boy in the Cleveland area sold Chicken in the Rough, another franchised fried chicken recipe. As an effort to stomp out the outside franchises, Big Boy offered Country Cousin's Chicken, its own brand of fried chicken to its franchisees, but to my knowledge, no Big Boy locations use the Country Cousins Chicken name today. Bismarck Big Boy seems to be the only restaurant using the Big Boy name outside of California that still serves a bone-in fried chicken product. I found the chicken itself to be nicely cooked and reasonably fresh if a little under-seasoned, but a quick dip in the gravy really brought each bite to life. The thick chicken gravy was nicely seasoned to compensate for the lack of seasoning on the chicken, and its peppery flavor served to enhance the flavor of the chicken. After the chicken was gone, I found myself using the gravy on my fries, which were thinner and much crisper, which is to say, objectively better than Michigan Big Boy fries.

Big Boy, Dakota style. 

The sauce had a paler color and milder flavor than on its Michigan counterparts. That thumb isn't getting any better looking.   

The Big Boy itself bore a strong resemblance to its Michigan counterpart with its three piece sesame seed bun, shredded lettuce, single slice of American cheese, and Thousand Island style sauce. The flavor of that sauce was a bit milder, pickley, and dare I say, Big Mac-like than the Thousand Island used at Michigan Big Boy, almost as if their sauce comes from a different supplier, which when you think about it, it's likely to. I also imagine very few people notice given the restaurant's remote location within the Big Boy chain. Regardless, I found it to be a perfectly acceptable burger. After all, Big Boy sauce varies much more wildly than this. Frisch's uses tartar sauce, while Bob's uses a blend of ketchup and relish. Another curiosity on the menu in Bismarck that I didn't get to try is a junior Big Boy with a single patty, which like the chicken and pizza burger, I've never encountered at any other Big Boy. 

The view from the drive thru. I had my butt with me, but no one seemed to mind. 

The Bismarck Big Boy was the turnaround point of my four day 2500 mile roadtrip, and despite its grueling pace, it was a trip I'm glad I made. I had initially planned a trip to California to eat at one or a few of Bob's Big Boy locations for Big Boy month this year, but for a variety of reasons that trip didn't happen. I thought this trip to North Dakota would be the next best thing to a visit to Bob's, the original Big Boy chain, but in retrospect, I'm glad I visited Bismarck instead of Burbank. With its indoor dining, and multiple locations with consistent menus, Bob's Big Boy is sure to lack the charming weirdness of the Bismarck Big Boy born out of plagiarism and litigation. Everything about its existence feels like a fluke, from the lawsuit that inexplicably turned into a franchise agreement to its 65 years of continuous existence serving the literal dozens of residents of The Flickertail State, despite the Big Boy brand having no presence anywhere remotely nearby and the restaurant itself having no indoor seating in a state known for its harsh winters. Weirder still, according to their Facebook page, the Bismarck Big Boy is now offering a mushroom Swiss burger on a Big Boy bun. If they still have it next fall, I may be crazy enough to come back and try it, and you should too. 

Raxgiving is so close I can taste it. If you'll be anywhere near Harlan, Kentucky on November 29th, consider joining me at Rax for a meal and informal broken chain conversation.