The Story of Bob’s Big Boy and its Double-Deck Hamburger

Bob’s Big Boy founder, Bob Wian, started at the bottom. Shortly after graduating high school in 1933, he worked at the White Log Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. He worked his way up from dishwasher to fry cook and then to manager.

His boss at the time, Davis W. Wood, would later become the purchasing agent for the Bob’s Big Boy chain. While at the White Log Coffee Shop, Wian learned their entire operating system, from pricing to using a central commissary for all their locations.

Wian believed he could build a better mousetrap.

The Story of Bob's Big Boy
The Story of Bob’s Big Boy

He was adamant about gaining restaurant experience. So, he quit his management job and returned to an entry-level dishwashing gig at Rite Spot.

Wian also learned the fry cook and counterman stations. The Rite Spot offered curb service, and Wian’s younger sister was a carhop there.

Food Service is Where It’s At

At Rite Spot, he learned how important consistency is in food service. The man who hired Wian at Rite Spot was Leonard A. Dunagan, who would later be Bob’s Big Boy company’s vice president and general manager.

I guess it paid off to be kind to Wian.

Wian had been saving up his earnings to open a place he could call his own. He came across a ten-stool stand between a nursery and a liquor store in Glendale, California.

He used the proceeds to buy the store after selling his DeSoto Roadster for three hundred dollars. Then, he borrowed fifty dollars from his dad for supplies.

On August 6, 1936, the stand reopened as Bob’s Pantry.

Bob Wian (of Bob's Big Boy) serving a customer at Bob’s Pantry in 1936
Bob Wian serving a customer at Bob’s Pantry in 1936

Bob’s Big Boy Inspirations

Many of the dishes on the Bob’s Pantry menu were “inspired” by his previous places of employment and restaurants that he frequented, like White Log’s pancakes and C.C. Brown’s Ice Cream Parlor’s hot fudge sundae. The red hamburger relish from Rite Spot found its way onto the creation that would catapult Bob’s Pantry into the world of burger legend.

In February 1937, members of the Glendale High School orchestra were having their usual burger meal when one of them asked for “something different, something special?” as he recalled in an interview for the Milwaukee Journal on December 16, 1958.

That day, he created a sandwich that has been imitated a million times over, the original double-deck hamburger.

The Original Double-Deck Hamburger

The original double-deck hamburger had a sesame bun sliced twice to create a middle piece of bread. If it sounds familiar, it has had hundreds of restaurant imitators, including the most famous one, McDonald’s Big Mac.

I will use McDonald’s Big Mac terminology for the following paragraph: the bottom bun is the heel, the middle is the club, and the sesame-seed top is the crown.

The heel was topped with a two-ounce beef patty, a slice of American cheese, and one and a half ounces of shredded lettuce with mayo, in that order.

The club was placed on the bottom two-ounce beef patty.

The upper half was stacked with red relish (sweet pickle relish, ketchup, and chili sauce), another two-ounce beef patty, and mayo, with the crown on top.

Big Boy Double Deck Hamburger Assembly Graph
Big Boy Double Deck Hamburgers, courtesy of Robert M Thomas

Bob’s Big Boy History Starts Here

There are two different stories about the origins of the Big Boy burger name.

One involves a chubby six-year-old named Richard Woodruff, who helped around Bob’s Pantry. He was paid in burgers. A short time after the double-deck hamburger’s creation, Wian called Woodruff “Big Boy,” and the name stuck.

There’s also the rumor that Woodruff was initially nicknamed “Fat Boy,” but the name couldn’t be used because of a Fat Boy’s Bar-B-Q restaurant, so they chose the next best thing, “Big Boy.”

Warner Brothers animation artist Ben Washam drew the original sketch for the iconic Big Boy character with the checkered overalls and burger in hand.

Vintage Bob's Big Boy Menu Cover
Big Boy design by Bob Washam

Washam and Wian had worked together at the White Log Coffee Shop. Wian renamed Bob’s Pantry after his now-famous double-deck hamburger, Bob’s Big Boy.

The Big Boy character would become as much of an icon as the sandwich. The giant statues outside restaurants would famously be stolen or kidnapped by pranksters.

Evolution of the Big Boy Mascot Graphic
Evolution of Big Boy

The Big Boy led to a favorite line of merchandising that exists to this day. I still remember owning a Bob’s Big Boy bank as a child.

Bob’s Big Boy Licensing

Let’s start calling Wian by his first name, Bob. It’s a little friendlier. In 1938, a second Bob’s Big Boy opened.

After expanding the original location, curb service began at both restaurants. Bob’s sister Dottie moved from Rite Spot to be a carhop at her brother’s establishment.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the Big Boy name would start to spread nationwide with the additions of Frisch’s Big Boy (Cincinnati, Ohio), Eat’n Park Big Boy (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Parkette Big Boy (Charleston, West Virginia; it became Shoney’s Big Boy in 1954), and Elias Brothers Big Boy (Detroit, Michigan).

Shoney’s sub-franchised the Big Boy sandwich and name on behalf of Bob’s Big Boy.

Bob allowed these franchisees to sell his Big Boy double-deck hamburger but not to use the name “Bob’s Big Boy.” This is why you usually find the words “Big Boy” proceeded with the possessive form of the owner’s name.

How many exactly were there? Well, let’s see. There was this many:

Abdow’s, Arnold’s, Azar’s, Becker’s, Bud’s, Chez Chap, Don’s, Eat’n Park, Elby’s, Elias Brothers, Franklin’s, Frejlach’s, Frisch’s, JB’s (US), JB’s (Canada), Kebo’s, Ken’s, Kip’s, Lendy’s, Leo’s, Manners, Marc’s, McDowell’s, Mr. B’s, Shap’s, Shoney’s, Ted’s, TJ’s, Tops, Tote’s, Tune’s, Vip’s, and Yoda’s.

Big Boy Restaurants Franchise Logos
Big Boy Restaurants Franchise Logos

I’m not even counting all of the chubby-kid imitator restaurants that sprouted up to try and catch some of that Bob’s Big Boy magic.

Big Sales Means Big Expansion

According to an ad in the Van Nuys News on November 7, 1951, Bob’s Big Boy sold 2,600,000 Big Boy sandwiches with eight operating locations.

In 1956, the original Bob’s Big Boy location received a facelift and remodel. The newly designed and rebuilt drive-in, designed by architects Wayne McAllister and William C. Wagner, could now seat ninety customers inside, along with fifty-five parking spaces outside for carhop service.

Unfortunately, the landmark building was torn down in 1989 to make way for a mall.

On April 28, 1967, the twenty-three-owned Bob’s Big Boy restaurants and the five hundred franchised restaurants merged with Marriott-Hot Shoppes Inc. Yes, Marriott, the mammoth hotel chain.

Back then, they were primarily a food service company that owned Hot Shoppes restaurants and seven hotels at the time of the merger. Marriott started as a root beer stand in 1927, but that’s a story for another day.

Bob is Still the Boss

Bob continued as president of the new “Big Boy Restaurants of America” division until his resignation in May 1968. Marriott began a rapid expansion of Bob’s Big Boy, combining opening recent locations with purchasing franchises like JB’s, Ken’s, and Manners’ stores.

Elias Brothers purchased the Big Boy trademark from Marriott in 1987. Marriott, however, kept the Bob’s Big Boy name and the 208 Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in operation.

On December 18, 1989, Marriott announced that it was restructuring and focusing on its hotel brand. All of their Allie’s (32 locations), Bickford’s (31 locations), Bob’s Big Boy (235 locations), Howard Johnson’s (57 locations), Roy Rogers (358 locations), and Wag’s (79 locations) restaurants would be sold.

In late January 1991, 104 of the Marriott-owned Bob’s Big Boys in California were sold with the plan to be converted to either Carrow’s or Coco’s restaurants. The rest of the Bob’s Big Boy locations were sold off piecemeal over the next few years.

Bob’s Big Boy Still Lives

In 2000, Robert Liggett purchased Big Boy Restaurants International from the bankrupt Elias Brothers. Shortly after that, Liggett made a deal with Frisch’s Big Boy, paying $1.2 million for franchise rights in Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Frisch’s would have the exclusive Big Boy rights in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, excluding the Cleveland area.

If you ever find yourself in Downey, California, the Bob’s Big Boy location is known as Bob’s Big Boy Broiler, a drive-in restaurant with a Googie-style coffee shop. The building was originally erected in 1958.

Its previous incarnation was known as Harvey’s Broiler and later as Johnie’s Broiler. In 2002, the State of California’s Historic Resources Commission registered the building as a Historic Landmark—which meant it was off-limits for tearing it down.

Don’t Mess with Big Boy

On Sunday, January 7, 2007, the property’s current tenant began to tear down the building without any permits. Police stopped the illegal demolition, and the fella responsible for it was later charged with five misdemeanor charges for his trouble.

Out of this debacle, one hero rose from the ashes. Jim Louder, owner of Bob’s Big Boy in Torrance, signed a ninety-nine-year lease with the property owner with help from the Downey Historical Society. Downey’s Redevelopment Agency rebuilt it.

Whatever parts of the structure survived the demolition were incorporated into the new restaurant. The original blueprints were used to keep it as authentic as possible.

Weird Big Boy Fact

You can find Big Boy restaurants in Japan, but there is one noticeably absent thing: their signature burger. That’s right; there are no Big Boy Double Deck Hamburgers on the menu at Big Boy locations in Japan.

Azar’s Big Boy

Azar's Big Boy Building in Fort Wayne, Indiana
Azar’s Big Boy Building in Fort Wayne, Indiana

The last location of approximately 26 Azar’s Big Boy restaurants shut down in June 2020. My wife was able to snap a couple of pictures when we were in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but alas, we never ate there.

Azar's Big Boy Statue in Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Azar’s Big Boy Statue

Big Boy in Florida

The closed Big Boy restaurant in Sanford, Florida
The closed Big Boy restaurant in Sanford, Florida

Frisch’s and Shoney’s Big Boy restaurants were all over Florida during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Florida had no Big Boys for a good twenty years.

Around 2005, a Big Boy opened up in Sanford, Florida, and only lasted a few years.

Frisch’s Big Boy

Frisch's Big Boy Building in Kentucky
Frisch’s Big Boy in Kentucky

I’ve visited a few of Frisch’s Big Boy locations in Kentucky and Ohio, and I suggest you do the same.

14 thoughts on “The Story of Bob’s Big Boy and its Double-Deck Hamburger”

  1. So funny and odd you just wrote this up earlier this month. I just got the inkling to write about my family’s connection to Bob Wian this week in my family history blog. Currently doing the research for my article and found this! Will likely publish mine in a few days. Trying to find out which location of White Log Coffee Shop Bob worked at. Thanks for penning this article!

  2. HI — are you familiar with Arnie Peterson’s role in the creation of Bob’s Big Boy — his being instrumental in expanding the restaurant from the one location in Glendale — I had always heard about his role in meeting Bob and expanding the business but I don’t see anything about it listed in any of the history of Bob’s Big Boy.

  3. A McDonalds manager in PA copied the “Big Boy Hamburger” by using a 3 piece poppy seed bun, lettuce on top and bottom bun with 1000 island dressing on all the layers, one slice of American Cheese and dehydrated onion bits. Big Boy did not use lettuce on the center bun slice but dressed it with special 1000 island Bob’s dressing creation special blend. McDonalds boxed each “Big Mac” sandwich and did not wrap them with sanitary sandwich wrap paper as Bob’s Big did and after wrapping placed the “Big Boy” in a special sandwich bag envelope prior to sale or car and restaurant diner’s tables. I am a former (now retired) Big Boy restaurant dishwasher, fountain boy, line cook, KFC cook (Marc’s Big Boy), kitchen manager, opening breakfast cook and manager trainee, shift manager, and Exec. Manager/Unit Mgr. Kip’s Big Boy of Ok. and avid Big Boy memorbillia collector from various Big Boy franchises Bob’s, Kip’s, Vip’s ,Shoney’s. Frisch’s and others. I am retired and open for any correspondence and would like photos and articles from former Kip’s and Marc’s (WS) employees and share experiences. I miss the original Big Boy Hamburger to this day! Thanks for any response!!!

    • Have you tried any of the Bob’s Boys that are still out there today? Is the food made the same? I went to the Bob’s in Burbank and I can swear, even bet money on it, the burgers are nowhere near the original Bob’s Big Boy burgers.

      • The last time I ate at Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale must have been at least 20 years ago.

        I’ve been to Frisch’s Big Boy in Kentucky and Ohio a handful of times in the last few years and loved it.


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