Big Boy still holds a special place in Milwaukee’s heart.
At one point, the classic burger chain and diner boasted more than 1,000 locations nationwide, and over 60 of those were Marc’s Big Boy restaurants. The Marcus Corporation-owned arm of the franchise had dozens of restaurants scattered throughout the Midwest, including a cluster of locations in and around Milwaukee. Things were going great for Big Boy…until they weren’t.
In the 1980s, the changing tastes of consumers and growing competition from other franchises saw the chain’s reach and profitability decline. Here in Milwaukee, some Marc’s Big Boys were rebranded as Marc’s Family Restaurant in the late ’80s, and more upscale experiments like Marc’s Big Boy Cafe, Coffee Mill, and Marc’s Cafe replaced most of the city’s eight remaining locations by the early ’90s. In early 1995, Milwaukee’s last remaining Big Boy—located at 7926 W. Capitol Drive—closed. The last unmistakable statue of the pudgy lad with his burger hoisted to the heavens was removed from the shuttered restaurant, and Big Boy was effectively gone from the city.
Though Big Boy was eradicated from both Milwaukee (and Wisconsin as a whole) and has been gone for more than 20 years at this point, the chain still lives on. For some reason, there’s over 250 Big Boys in Japan. Here in the states, though, fewer than 80 remain. Of those United States spots, all but eight are located in Michigan—where the chain is headquartered in the Detroit-adjacent city of Warren.
We’re not afraid to travel for a good meal…or even just a meal in general. We drove all around the state to eat at every George Webb in the world in a single day. Hell, we even drove to Michigan to eat at the last remaining Hot ‘n Now on earth. So what’s the harm in taking a day trip across Lake Michigan to get an iconic meal at a place Milwaukee so fondly remembers? Recently, we hopped on the Lake Express ferry to Muskegon, Michigan and stopped to eat at the first Big Boy Restaurant we saw. Here’s what we witnessed, tasted, and experienced.
About 45 minutes after getting off the boat, we saw this sun-faded burger beacon shimming on an otherwise overcast morning the side of rural Michigan thoroughfare. We walked into that Cedar Springs-based Big Boy and, in doing so, returned to our youth.
Arriving around 10:15 a.m. ET, we happened upon a fairly full and bustling dining room in the 3,600-resident city’s Big Boy.
The dessert case was somewhat stocked with cookies, brownies, pecan rolls, and (for some reason) apples. It was reminiscent of something you’d see at a Perkins and—if our memory wasn’t augmented by time—something we recall from childhood trips to Marc’s in the Fox Cities.
One thing we have very little recollection of is the ubiquitous Big Boy branding throughout the restaurant. That’s not to say this is new; we just don’t remember it being this prevalent. Here, the beloved burly boy’s image was plastered on the men’s room door.
And on ketchup bottles and seasoning salt containers.
As we took in the faintly familiar setting, we brazenly ignored the breakfast hours and requested a lunch menu. Our courteous, professional, and seemingly quite busy server gladly complied, allowing us to start our day with a Big Boy favorite: a chocolate shake. It was a bit early for ice cream, but you can’t go wrong with a Big Boy shake. While time and corporate interests have brought new flavors like Oreo Cookie and Peanut Butter Fudge shakes, along with items like Mug Root Beer and Wild Cherry Pepsi floats into the fold, the metal malt cup with the extra shake inside was thankfully one part of the sweet treat that was untouched by time.
There have been numerous new food offerings cycled in, too, but we’d be fools to take a boat across a Great Lake to skip an opportunity to eat a Classic Big Boy. Served with a side of fries, the world famous burger runs a scant $6.49.
This particular burger had overflowing piles of shredded lettuce, and we recalled the patties being bigger in our day (though we were much smaller when we had our last Classic). Still, the lightly toasted sesame seed tri-bun, the two slices of American cheese, and that inimitable (well, unless you’re McDonald’s!) sauce came together with the two thin patties and the crisp lettuce to make this departed favorite just as satisfying as ever.
If the fond memory of the Classic Big Boy on its own isn’t enough for visitors to take home with them, the restaurant—apparently well aware of the nostalgic place it holds in the hearts of many customers—wisely sells lots of souvenirs. There are lots of keepsakes that have been branded with the corpulent kid’s likeness. There were six T-shirt varieties available at this particular location.
There was coffee, as well as some glassware, and canisters of Hot Chocolate Fudge for sale.
Customers can bring Big Boy flavors home with them in bags of Fish & Chips batter and pancake mix.
And, yes, bobbleheads.
As we passed a smiling small scale statuette in the restaurant’s vestibule on our way back to the car and the Big Boy-less roads between here and the neighboring state the burger chain left so long ago, we took another look at the restaurant. The fledgling franchise is nowhere near as strong as it once was, but even after more than 80 years in business, numerous societal changes, and countless ups and downs along the way, there’s still something special about seeing the blue-eyed ceramic boy triumphantly lifting a timeless American sandwich above his head.
Though Big Boy’s time in Milwaukee ended almost a quarter century ago, it’s strangely comforting to know that a familiar friend is just a state away.