Best known for its cowlick-haired, overalls-wearing statue of a boy holding a double-decker cheeseburger on a plate — the same statue that Dr. Evil used as a spacecraft during the "Austin Powers" film series — the chain known first as Bob's Big Boy, shortened later to Big Boy, has a complicated tale considering its humble beginnings.
Started as the Bob's Pantry Drive-In in Glendale, Calif., the chain took its name from the Big Boy burger sandwich on its mascot's plate.
The character evolved into its current incarnation in 1956 and was popular enough to warrant its own comic book by the time Big Boy began spreading across the U.S. and Canada. While one of the first restaurants to franchise locations, Big Boy had a tough time standardizing its franchisees' menus and even their franchise fees, with some paying as little as $1 a year for the rights.
The sheer size of the chain drew interest from Marriott (MAR), which bought the company in 1967, but the continued fracturing of the Big Boy brand into chains such as Eat 'N' Park and Shoney's in the late '70s and early '80s was taking its toll. While there were more than 1,000 Big Boy restaurants at the chain's peak in 1979, increased pressure from more standardized fast-food chains such as McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKW) and Wendy's (WEN) helped turn the masses away from the drive-in and toward the drive-thru. As the Big Mac pummeled the Big Boy, Marriott sold off the brand to a large group of franchise operators in 1987 and the whole works went bankrupt in 2000.
Today, there are fewer than 250 Big Boy locations remaining, but the quirks that tore the chain asunder in the first place remain. While all locations exist under one parent company, they're subdivided into Bob's Big Boy and Frisch's Big Boy, with different branding, websites, menus and even Big Boy mascots. You know who doesn't have time to sort all of that out? Customers who have more clear-cut options.
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