Friday, November 8, 2019

Me and the Boys

I've spent the past 12 months feeling more than a little bit guilty about my blog post about the meal I had at the Port Clinton, Ohio Frisch's Big Boy last November. While everything I wrote about my experience was true, I should have made efforts to document an endangered brand rather than to criticize it, but the allure of being an amateur restaurant critic rather than an amateur historian captured my attention as it does all too often. I have a lot of affection for the Big Boy brand in general, and Frisch's in particular, and the more I thought about it, the more unfair it seemed that I visited only one Frisch's during Big Boy Month last year. Even worse, it was a franchised Frisch's in Northern Ohio, the edge of the chain's operating territory, hardly the best representative of the chain's 118 mostly company-owned locations. I picked this far-flung, oddball franchisee based solely on it's proximity to my Metro Detroit home, and the fact that its next door neighbor was Lake Erie. Needless to say, I could have made greater efforts to curate my Frisch's Big Boy experience, and ensure it was a more positive one.

1990s Frisch's print ad (courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

This year, I intend to right that wrong, and in observance of the second annual Broken Chains Big Boy Month, I spent my entire weekend road tripping to four (arguably five) carefully selected Frisch's Big Boy locations in an effort to both experience and show a more complete view of the current state of the Frisch's brand, while taking in occasional glimpses of its history.

The approximate route of my Frisch's Big Boy trip (Courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

Pre-Big Boy Frisch's matchbook showing the original two locations, (courtesy of The Poncherello Collection)

Cincinnati restaurateur David Frisch became the first franchisee of Bob Wian's Big Boy system in 1946, after Wian offered him a franchise for a fee of one dollar per year for a territory including Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida. The low cost of the franchise was part of Wian's strategy to grow his brand rapidly and obtain a national trademark. Frisch's family would remain in control of the chain within a chain until 2015. After weathering storms that all but destroyed the Big Boy brand outside of Frisch's territory, becoming a separate corporate entity from the company that controlled the Michigan Big Boys and California Bob's Big Boys, and losing the Florida territory entirely, David Frisch's grandchildren sold the company to NRD Capital, an Atlanta-based private equity firm.

I grew up eating at Frisch's in Kentucky fairly regularly, and was more than a little bit cranky about the ownership change, and took out those frustrations, perhaps unfairly, on the Port Clinton Frisch's last year. Since then, the chain has made some encouraging moves, including rolling out a line of new, Big Boy-inspired burgers that offer new interpretations of Frisch's original interpretation of the Big Boy, which itself differed in several ways from Bob Wian's original Big Boy burger. Don't worry, purists, the original tartar sauce topped Frisch's Big Boy is still on the menu, but it gained some new siblings this year. I set out to try them all on my multi stop journey.

Meal #1
Location: Frisch's Big Boy 16 Weller Drive, Tipp City, Ohio.
Order: Farmhouse Boy platter with onion rings and coleslaw, Diet Coke

Typical '80s-'90s built Frisch's

Admittedly, I chose this location because it was near I-75 and on the way to Cincinnati. I did however choose the Tipp City Frisch's over its counterpart up the road in Troy because I'd had one poor experience too many at the Troy Frisch's. I was seated right away on a Friday evening, and half the salad bar was running in hot food mode, keeping a modest buffet of seafood and sides warm. Servers could be heard explaining to anyone ordering the salad bar that they could only eat from the cold side. A surprising number of people needed this explained to them repeatedly. If I'm being completely honest, the buffet looked questionable at best. It made me feel thankful that I had planned on ordering a burger.

Farmhouse Boy platter 

The Farmhouse Boy is what I ordered. It's an original Frisch's Big Boy to which a fried egg and a few strips of bacon has been added. A frequent criticism of the original sized Big Boy is that its two eighth pound patties are insufficient to fill its three-piece bun and make for a flavor profile that lacks sufficient beefiness to please the modern burger connoisseur, and reminds the eater of the Big Boy's depression-era origins. The Super Big Boy, essentially the same burger with quarter pound patties has been a menu for decades serving as the sole response to the criticism, until recently when Frisch's corporate overlords sought to address the original Big Boy's protein deficiency with a wider array of proteins. I was a fan from the first bite. The bacon and egg play well with the pickle-heavy flavor of tartar sauce, and indeed sliced pickles that top the burger. It's a great balance of flavors that tastes more complex and substantial without losing the classic signature Frisch's flavor. The onion rings were crispy, hot and sweet, and the coleslaw had the same pleasant tang it always has. Aside from the odor of sketchy buffet shrimp permeating the dining room, my in-depth exploration of Frisch's was off to a decent start.

Meal #2
Location: Frisch's Big Boy "Mainliner" 5760 Wooster Pike, Cincinnati, Ohio
Order: Bad Boy, Soup and salad bar, Diet Coke

The Mainliner Drive-In was one of two restaurants owned by David Frisch that began selling Big Boys immediately after he became the first Big Boy franchisee. The original restaurant is long-gone, and a modern Frisch's Big Boy Building now occupies the site, but the original Mainliner signs remain on the property as nods to the brand's heritage. Locals still call it the Mainliner. My Cincinnati-area friends Carl and Lorelai Poncherello brought me here after our trip to Roney's this past spring, and I knew I'd have to come back for Big Boy Month. In fact, Carl and Lorelai were with me on this visit to the Mainliner as well, and were nice enough to take me on a tour of a few interesting historical sites between the Mainliner and their home, including Frisch's longtime headquarters, and a previously undiscovered former Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken building serving as a veterinarian's office.

Frisch's HQ; this is where the magic happens. 

Maybe don't bring your pet chicken here for a checkup. Cousin Minnie Pearl may be hiding in the shadows with a meat cleaver. 

The dining room at the Mainliner is home to a small museum of Frisch's artifacts that was added during a 2018 renovation. On my previous visit there, Carl, an avid collector of restaurant memorabilia had donated a pair of 1960s vintage Frisch's paper cups to be added to the display cases, and I was curious to see where the restaurant's management had placed them. On my way to the salad bar, I took a detour to the museum area to find Carl's cups, and was surprised and dismayed to see that they were indeed in the display case, but still stacked, one inside the other, and barely visible behind some Big Boy dolls. I had hoped that such rare artifacts, generously donated by my friend would have been displayed more prominently.

Carl's cups are hidden behind the dolls on the top left. Go figure. 

Too much spicy tartar sauce is my new favorite condiment.

Bad Boy and the bounty of the Mainliner's salad bar

I was, however encouraged by the salad bar that was impeccably clean and stocked with fresh fixins. I loaded up a plate with salad and a bowl with cream of potato soup to return to my table, where our respective orders, including my Bad Boy, had already arrived. The Bad Boy is a classic Big Boy with a slice of pepper jack cheese in place of the slice of American cheese that's normally on the lower patty, and topped with a spicy tartar sauce, which I suspect is Frisch's original tartar sauce mixed with Sriracha. I found it to have the perfect level of heat for my tastes, but no so much heat that the signature Frisch's flavors were drowned out, another outstanding variation on the classic Frisch's Big Boy.

Meal #3
Location: Frisch's Big Boy, 840 Lila Avenue Milford, Ohio
Order: Pumpkin Cheesecake, water

How could anyone not stop to take a picture of this sign?

Carl, Lorelai, and I stopped here for dessert immediately after eating at the Mainliner, mainly so we could admire the 1950s vintage neon sign out front. The building was identical to the modern Frisch's on the site of the Mainliner, but with additional seating in place of the museum. The pumpkin cheesecake tasted just as good as it did in Port Clinton last year, but someone in the kitchen had neglected to add the whipped cream and little candy pumpkin to the top.

Meal #4 Frisch's Big Boy
Location: 500 Broadway Street, Anderson, Indiana
Order: Breakfast Buffet, orange juice, water

I've never seen this style of Big Boy statue in the wild before. 

I parted ways with Carl and Lorelai not long after our stop at the Frisch's in Milford, and spent the night in the suburbs north of Cincinnati. I got an early start the next day and headed for Anderson, Indiana, home of a Frisch's Big Boy operating out of a building that appeared to be largely untouched since the 1950s. Most operating Frisch's I encounter are in structures built in the 1980s or later, and I strongly suspect that the Anderson Frisch's is the last of its kind still in operation. I had worked up a powerful hunger on the two hour drive there, and all I could think about the whole drive was trying a Breakfast Boy, a Big Boy with sausage patties instead of beef patties, with bacon and egg thrown on for good measure. Upon arrival, I took no more than a minute to admire the building and grounds, headed inside where I was seated and handed a menu that made no mention of the new Big Boys. Only the original Big Boy and Super Big Boy were on the menu. I wouldn't be having a Breakfast Boy here. Defeated, I resigned myself to eat from the Sunday morning breakfast buffet, which was mostly fine as breakfast buffets go. While the buffet food was acceptable, the beverages were severely lacking in quality. All I had to chase slightly too salty biscuits and gravy was orange juice that had an unpleasant brown color and tasted half fermented and a glass of local tap water that had an unpleasant rotten egg flavor. The lack of an up to date menu and potable water led me to conclude that the Anderson Frisch's is best appreciated from the outside.

Most Big Boy and Big Boy-descended chains offer a weekend breakfast buffet where you can get food that looks like... this. 

While the exterior of the building was a 1950s time capsule, complete with a vintage sign similar to the one in Milford and a rare early style Big Boy statue with striped overalls, fair hair, and saddle shoes, the interior looked and felt tired. The walls were rough and uneven like they had been hastily repaired and painted one time too many. The carpet around the buffet and leading into the kitchen was threadbare, and aside from a dusty display case full of more Frisch's artifacts, there was no evidence of the Frisch's brand reflected in the decor. Instead the walls were lined with Indianapolis Colts merchandise.

Mini-museum in an otherwise unremarkable dining room 

As I dry-swallowed my breakfast, I concluded that this franchised Frisch's location's anachronistic appearance is the result of an owner's resistance to change rather than a conscious historical preservation effort. They were even still serving Pepsi products. The majority of the chain converted to Coke last year, not that either would be palatable if the carbonated water in the fountain drinks comes from local sources. Though the poor water quality was concerning, the lack of the exciting new Breakfast Boy I had been craving all morning was the biggest disappointment. Frisch's corporate overlords would do well to acquire this place from its owner, give the interior the restoration it deserves, and operate it to the standards I witnessed at the Cincinnati stores.

I returned to my car dejected, but I had an idea. I was only 90 minutes away from one of my favorite Big Boys. Surely I could have a Breakfast Boy and a positive experience to conclude my trip there.

Meal #5
Location: Azar's Big Boy 6800 Bluffton Road, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Order: Breakfast Boy, chocolate shake, water

Azar's Big Boy once had 26 locations in Northern Indiana and Colorado, and operated not as a direct franchisee of Bob Wian's Big Boy, but as a subfranchisee, one of two Big Boy chains to acquire their franchise rights from Frisch's. As such, Azar's more or less has always functioned as Frisch's does in all but name. The Fort Wayne restaurant is the last operating Azar's Big Boy location. I ate there during Big Boy Month last year, and had a great experience. I had high hopes of an Azar's stop cheering me up after a disappointing breakfast, but I fear that I visited Azar's, ostensibly a very good Big Boy, while they were having a very bad day.

My milkshake...

By the time I was in Fort Wayne, it was late in the morning, and the Sunday brunch crowd was swarming the place. I parked in the crowded lot, and found my way inside, noting a handwritten sign on the door informing me that their credit card machine was down and they could only accept cash. I was seated immediately at one of the few remaining open tables, and a visibly frazzled server took my order. She returned a few minutes later with my freshly mixed chocolate shake. I hadn't had a Frisch's shake in years, but this one made me wonder why. It was the perfect thickness, pleasantly creamy, and with a richer chocolate flavor than could have been provided by Hershey's syrup alone. I sipped it, surprisingly indifferent to the throngs of diners around me as I awaited the much anticipated arrival of my Breakfast Boy.

...brings all the boys... the table.

My server returned after I'd finished the first quarter of my milkshake carrying my long-anticipated matutinal burger. I thanked her as she set it before me and disappeared to tend to a large group seated nearby. I took a bite, and swallowed it, dejected. She had mistakenly brought me a Farmhouse Boy with beef patties. I debated just eating it and not complaining, I really did, but at that point I felt that eating a Breakfast Boy was essential to my happiness, so I informed my server of the error when she had finished with the nearby group. She apologized, and returned, half a chocolate shake later, with my Breakfast Boy. I'm happy to report that the Breakfast Boy lived up to the image I had built up for it in my head. It looked and tasted like something a stoned line cook working the graveyard shift would prepare while on a lunch break, and I mean that in the best possible sense. The breakfast sausage patties paired surprisingly well with the pickles and tartar sauce, and the quarter of a chocolate shake I had left was just enough to wash it down. My Breakfast Boy-induced euphoria was cut short, however, when I witnessed a line growing to a concerning length as I was finishing my meal.

I sat, watching the line of patrons waiting to pay their bills extend halfway across the dining room, wondering if I had any hope of settling my tab and completing the 180 mile drive home in anything resembling a timely manner. After ten minutes of this, I noticed that I hadn't seen my waitress for a while. Ten more minutes passed, as the children of the large party seated near my grew restless and unruly. I was feeling increasingly on edge, as if I had not just eaten a magical sausage burger when my waitress finally appeared with my bill and an apology, indicating that the restaurant's computer system had gone down, making it momentarily impossible to print bills or accept even cash payments. Thankfully, the staff had managed to get the system to function somehow, and by the time I had my bill, the line had diminished. I quickly paid and left, as the manager was locking the entry door mentioning something about closing early.

Like a lot of broken chains that still have some semblance of corporate oversight, a trip to Frisch's Big Boy is a mixed bag. From the impeccably run Mainliner that, cup display aside, exemplifies the best of the Frisch's brand on the site of where the Frisch's Big Boy brand began, to the indifferently run location in Anderson that tempted me to rehash the Grey Gardens pastiche I used to describe Pappy's Family Pub, even a collection of carefully-planned Big Boy stops can have unpredictable results, even when visiting a known good location like Azar's. Thanks to these little surprises, I didn't even get a chance to try the last of the new Big Boys, the Big Boy Deluxe, which is topped with tomatoes, red onion, and leaf lettuce. Regardless, I came away from my my weekend immersed in Frisch's with more positive experiences than negative ones, and I'm glad to have experienced the new menu items that look to the future while holding onto an appreciation for the brand's heritage. It's great to see Frisch's corporate overlords making efforts to maintain relevance in an increasingly competitive marketplace. I may even come back to Frisch's well before next year's Big Boy Month. I still have to try that Deluxe Big Boy.

The other Broken Chains November observance, Raxgiving is drawing near. If you're able, consider joining me and other broken chain enthusiasts to celebrate the season at the Harlan Kentucky Rax in a few weeks.

Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout to get 15% off your order through the end of the year!


  1. So - you made it to the Mainliner itself! Wonderful! My Small-Ford-Detector never did go off - I must have had it set to Aspire instead of Festiva. I hope sincerely that you enjoyed your sojourn in the vicinity of Fairfax, Mariemont, and Madison Place. It's pretty not bad here, although apart from the Big Boy we are a bit hard up for fast food.

    The hit-or-miss nature of your journeys to the various Big Boys is a significant factor in why I very seldom actually go to them, despite living in the very heart of Frisch's country. For me the absolute prime factor in motivating a trip to a fast food chain restaurant is the desire for a consistent, predictable experience - I am happy to go on a culinary adventure, but I prefer to do it intentionally. I am dismayed to learn about Frisch's acquisition by private equity; my understanding is that this a bad sign in almost any industry for the long-term health of the brand.

    I have been to that Mainliner a few times, and was struck by the fact that there was really nothing "flagship" about it. I thought your anecdote of the careless placement of the classic cups was a perfect illustration of this: if there's anywhere in the chain where everything should be done perfectly and with attention to detail, it would be at the Mainliner.

    Still, as you wisely note - it can be easy to get too down on the Big Boy, and this is perhaps a product of my own too-high expectations about it. I never yet have tried the pumpkin cheesecake. Perhaps soon I'll take the brief trek over to Milford, with the thought fixed in my mind to make the best out of whatever happens.

    1. I'm driving a car that's a bit larger and more German than a Festiva these days, so I probably flew in under your radar.

      I honestly would put Azar's a notch above the Mainliner or Milford on most days, but I happened to catch them on a very bad day. My visit there last year was my favorite meal of Big Boy Month 2018.

      I was similarly dismayed by the private equity acquisition, but the new menu additions and recent renovation of the Mainliner are encouraging, at least in the short term.

    2. I knew right off that the Fiesta with the "Camry Dent" isn't Zap's because it has Ohio plates.

  2. The CEO of Frisch's was recently on the Cincy Shirts Podcast. He seemed to be trying to stress that his focus was in moving the company forward while not losing the classic tastes that people depend on when choosing Frisch's. It sounds like they are doing that successfully with the new burgers, none if which I have personally tried. He also talked about wanting to move into the E Sports market which sounded a little odd to me. It sounds like they may need to work on other infrastructure concerns first.