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The History of Big Boy Restaurants

Bob's Pantry: Original Big Boy Restaurant

Bob's Pantry: Original Big Boy Restaurant

The legacy of the Big Boy Restaurants started in 1936 when Bob Wilan began a small enterprise in Glendale, CA. He sold his car for $350 and opened up a small, 10-seat diner called Bob’s Pantry. According to the history of the original restaurant, the famous Big Boy hamburger was created one day when members of an orchestra stopped in and asked if Wilan could come up with something different from the usual hamburger. What Wilan created was a “Double-Deck Cheeseburger” with two beef patties and a special sauce. They loved the burger and other customers that were there that day asked if they could try this new burger too.

Bob's Big Boy Restaurants Icon

Bob's Big Boy Restaurant Icon

The name “Big Boy” came about when Bob Wilan had a chubby young boy come into his restaurant one day. “He was about six and rolls of fat protruded where his shirt and pants were designed to meet. I was so amused by the youngster—jolly, healthy-looking and obviously a lover of good things to eat, I called him Big Boy.” Wilan decided to name his new hamburger Big Boy, after the boy. Due to the burger’s success, he was inspired to rename his diner “Bob’s Big Boy”.

The restaurants became so successful, they captured the attention of the Marriott Corporation, who bought the Big Boy chain in 1967. In 1987, one of the largest franchise operators, the Elias Brothers, purchased the chain from Marriott and moved the headquarters to Warren, Michigan. The Elias Brothers operated the restaurants until they declared bankruptcy in 2000. The chain was then sold to Robert Liggett Jr., who is the present CEO of the company. He renamed the chain Big Boy Restaurants International. The headquarters have remained in Warren, and the franchise is currently made up of more than 455 Big Boy Restaurants in the US and Canada. The different names under which these franchises run include Abdow’s, Bob’s, Shoney’s, and many more. Big Boy Japan owns and operates more than 216 locations under 4 different names, including Big Boy, Milky Way, Victoria Station and Grill Dan.

Bob's Big Boy Restaurants Icon Figure

Due to his enormous size, during construction of the Retro Planet offices, the walls were put up around this Big Boy statue.

The oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy in America is in Burbank, CA. It was established in 1949 and was designed as a drive-in where carhops brought the food out on trays.

Although the name Big Boy was originally applied to the famous double-decker hamburger, the Big Boy restaurants are also noted for their signature food items like onion rings, shakes and strawberry pie. With a menu like that, I’m sorry we don’t have a Big Boy restaurant here, in New England.

However, we do have an original, beautifully restored Big Boy that stands guard in the Retroplanet offices. He was restored by Vintage Vending and installed in the offices during construction. Because of his enormous size, the walls were put up around him.

Have you had the good fortune of enjoying a Big Boy hamburger? Share your memories below…

Last updated: May 7, 2012
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About Ann

Ann is a web assistant and project manager with Retro Planet. After prior stints in the advertising and publishing worlds, she has found her place with the company. She is a serious anglophile and history buff, with a passion for anything from the past, especially retro inspired decor.

  • Ralph Huffman

    Do you have any idea what a 4 1/2 foot fiberglass, restored, Bob’s Big Boy statue would be worth?

  • james h

    special sauce is missing, i lived in Michigan
    the new sauce tastes terrible, i will not go back

  • http://wellsantique@gwi.net joe bissonnette

    i have a 7ft 5in big boy statue for sale you can call 207-646-5553

  • carole

    I used to work for an Abdows Big Boy years ago in Connecticut. Was a great place to work and food was excellent. The only reason I left was because we moved. I was offered a head waitress position.

  • Suzi

    I worked at a big boy restaurant many years ago. (I’m now 63) The original secret sauce was   thousand island dressing.

  • Dennis

    Do you still have thios for sale?
    Thanks,  Dennis

  • Robert

    All of the Big Boy statues around Detroit and Macomb have to be cemented down into the ground now and have to be inspected all because a long time ago my uncle and his friends decided they were going to steal the Big Boy statue on 8 mile in Harper Woods it was a very interesting conversation on why there was a Big Boy statue in the backyard hahahaha