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Is Big Boy ready to grow up?

The legacy brand had been closing units, but it’s now looking to grow, while also giving fast casual another shot.

Family dining may be down, with the recent bankruptcy filing of Perkins & Marie Callender’s being but one recent example, but it still has an audience.  

At least that’s the hope of David Crawford, CEO and co-owner of Warren, Mich.-based Big Boy Restaurant Group, who is trying to reinvigorate the struggling legacy brand with menu updates, new franchisees and, to capture diners looking for limited service, a new fast-casual prototype.

Crawford, formerly the chain’s CMO, came to Big Boy in 2009 and became CEO last year. He and a group of investors bought the chain last fall for an undisclosed price. The company currently has 75 units, with six under development. In the 1980s, there were close to 1,000 Big Boy restaurants.

“We were a business in a declining state not for lack of success with the brand or menu, but just for lack of investment from ownership,” Crawford said. “We weren’t interested in growing the brand. The new group is interested in getting to 200 restaurants in the next five years. … It was really just a brand in neglect that nobody wanted to invest in, and now I’ve got a group that’s pretty aggressive.”

Under the new management, Big Boy has sold off 16 of its 30 company-owned stores to franchisees, with the ultimate goal of shedding down to five corporate units, he said.

Big Boy Restaurant Group is not affiliated with Ohio-based Frisch’s Big Boy, though Crawford said representatives from the two companies met recently to discuss how to possibly reduce redundancies within the organizations, Crawford said.

Next week, just outside of Detroit, Big Boy Restaurant Group will debut a fast-casual prototype. The brand has tried others over the years, but this will be the first that offers breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner.

The fast casual, which is 3,000 square feet, compared to 5,400 square feet for a traditional Big Boy, will focus on sandwiches, burgers (including the plant-based Impossible Burger), chicken tenders and breakfast offerings such as waffles, brioche and biscuit sandwiches, and pancakes. Menu items such as chicken tenders will be cross-utilized among the dayparts, he said. It has seating for 75, and, unlike the full-service locations, there’s no buffet.

Potential franchisees in Florida and California have expressed interest in a fast-casual Big Boy, Crawford said. And he recently signed a deal for a company to develop a half-dozen Big Boy units in Southeast Asia, he said.

In another effort to keep up with changing times, Big Boy has rolled out third-party delivery in more than 20 restaurants and plans to begin self-delivery once the fast-casual unit opens, he said.

For those that haven’t added delivery, Crawford said, “We either don’t have service in that area or we have to do a better job convincing franchisees that third-party delivery is not going away.”

The chain will also focus on marketing in the coming months, to better tell its story of housemade food and locally sourced ingredients, he said.

“We’ve got the existing guests that love us and don’t want anything to change,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep that core guest happy as we expand our offerings. Out of all the other brands I’ve worked for, people love Big Boy. They call it their Big Boy.”

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