October 6, 2009

Big Boy is Big News

Over on the west side of Charleston, W.Va., we find the well known figure of Big Boy, in a neat little park adjacent to a skilled nursing facility, standing atop a 14-foot pedestal. This is the city’s memorial to Alex Schoenbaum, founder of the Shoney’s restaurant chain.

Although the news articles do not identify where the Big Boy statue originated, the memorial is standing on the site where, in 1947, Schoenbaum opened a little burger joint called the Parkette Drive-in; later changed to Shoney’s, and still later, Shoney’s Big Boy.

Big Boy is a registered trademark, owned by the Warren, Mich. based Big Boy International. That firm is successor of the one that originally franchised the Big Boy name and mascot to Schoenbaum.

The Shoney’s chain was tremendously successful, eventually expanding to over 1,000 stores, but in 1976 they dropped the franchise, along with the Big Boy mascot. The chain was intent upon expanding into new markets and morphing into something other than a hamburger joint.

Now comes grist for controversy. For over 30 years Big Boy stood over the property where he now resides, welcoming all to sample the tasty fare served up by car hops on roller skates. But the drive-in closed down and moved, and the property was sold to the nursing facility. Shoney’s became a dine-in restaurant and let Big Boy go. As far as the Big Boy trademark owner was concerned, that ended the mascot's association with Shoney's, and they want their mascot removed from the memorial.<

"They're displaying a trademark that does not belong to them in a manner that causes confusion to the public regarding Big Boy's association with Shoney's," said Jennifer Bourgoin, vice president and general counsel of Big Boy International, which franchises more than 450 locations in the U.S. and Japan.

She added that Big Boy owns all the rights to the trademark statue and will take the issue to court if necessary.

Charleston residents grew up with the Big Boy, and they are up in arms. They fear losing a piece of their history, and they are fighting back. The city Mayor and even Mr. Schoenbaum’s widow are protesting and threatening to fight to the bitter end.

A story like this kind of makes you want to line up on the side of the citizens and fight the greedy, corporate types, doesn’t it? There is more to the story, actually.

Big Boy was franchised to more than just Shoney’s. In the Midwest and the mountain states you once could find Azar’s Big Boy, and there are still Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in California and some other states. Bob’s was the actual originator of the trademark, selling out to Marriott in 1967. Marriott sold the chain and the name to the Elias Brothers in 1987. In 2000 they went under, and the chain was sold to the current owners.

Shoney’s was the largest of the franchise holders, and because of their expansion, pretty much made the name famous. I loved the hamburgers, but detested the way they ran their company. Once Shoney’s dropped the Big Boy name and tried to transform the restaurant into a faux Denny’s, things started to slide. But it was even before that when I started refusing to eat there.

My distaste stemmed from the discriminatory practices, some of which apparently originated from Schoenbaum’s own biases.

Long before Shoney’s dropped the Big Boy trademark, the restaurant had policies barring certain segments of the population. Allegations of racial discrimination haunted the chain for years, and did not subside even after the signing of the Civil Rights act of 1964.

In the late 1960’s, Shoney’s enacted a corporate policy in which they denied service to men with long hair, and to motorcyclists. This policy continued throughout the “hippie” era. I was once presented with a menu on which a hamburger was priced at $100.00, because I entered with a longhaired, leather jacket wearing friend

There were employment discrimination policies as well. In 1989 the NAACP brought suit in Florida, charging that Shoney's systematically discriminated against African Americans by limiting employment opportunities and job selection, creating what it termed "a hostile, racist work environment.".

In a 1994 Missouri case, a pregnant woman was awarded over $400,000 when she proved that Shoney’s limited her hours and denied promotions based upon her status.

The final straw for me came in the 80’s when, while travelling, I stopped at a Shoney’s in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The restaurant was not at all clean, the service was slow and the waitress surly, the food on the breakfast buffet cold and unappetizing. When I complained about the temperature, I was told that there was a Denny’s just down the street. Needless to say, I will never darken the door of a Shoney’s again.

History is important and I can understand the citizen’s desire to maintain the Big Boy memorial, but for some reason I find it difficult to feel any real sympathy for Shoney’s or the legacy of its founder.
(AP Photo/Tom Breen)


One Fly said...

looks like the little prick should be waving the rebel flag as well.

Old NFO said...

Gotta agree MD- I used to eat there regularly and loved the burgers. I haven't eaten in one in years. To me the saddest part is that this would even rise to the level it has... Where has the civility gone in this country? It's obviously a memorial, not a 'store' or anything else. What is wrong with civic pride that (good or bad) the founder of the chain started there?