Long before virtual concepts, restaurants had another way of cracking new segments

Restaurant Rewind: Now a faint echo of what it was, Big Boy once provided the same opportunity to add new customer draws.
Restaurant Rewind

In those long-ago days before the pandemic, the term “virtual concept” was as foreign to most U.S. restaurateurs as a selection from “101 Rare Latvian Curses.”

Yet today, operations sporting that label are scrambling the industry’s traditional lines of competition. A burger joint inks a deal with one of the many upstart brands with “wings” in its name, and it’s instantly in the chicken delivery business. A brick-and-mortar operation without a hint of beef on its menu is suddenly slinging a lot of red meat courtesy of MrBeast Burger.

Virtual brands can now provide established operators with a way to snag fans of everything from quesadillas to cookies, grilled-cheese sandwiches and pancakes.

But the dynamic isn’t new, as the inaugural episode of RB’s newest podcast, "Restaurant Rewind," spells out.

Back in the 1940s and '50s, a California entrepreneur named Bob Wian offered that same sort of menu diversification through the unconventional licensing model he concocted for his brainchild, Bob’s Big Boy.

Operators were invited to add the chain’s signature hit product, the Big Boy double burger, to their menu for a royalty fee. To alert customers to the addition, the partners were permitted to tack the Big Boy name onto their current identity.

Thus were born about three dozen operations sporting the name Big Boy, from Abdow’s Big Boy through VIP’s Big Boy. The roster included brands that are still with us today, such as Shoney’s and Eat ‘n Park.  

A similar model figured into Kentucky Fried Chicken’s early days.

To learn more about the phenomenon, and why it disappeared in the 1970s and ‘80s, listen to the first episode of "Restaurant Rewind."

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