Frisch's vies to keep nostalgia from becoming quicksand

You're not going to find boba tea or the latest tech there, says CEO James Walker. But you're not going to be bored with the same old same ole, either, he says.
The Big Boy isn't showing he's nearly 80, Walker says. | Photo: Shutterstock

Frisch’s Big Boy has been giving Midwesterners their first taste of a double-decker burger since Harry Truman was president. How do you maintain a tradition like that without allowing a 76-year-old brand to lapse into a museum piece?

“It’s more about evolution than revolution,” says James Walker, who joined the heritage-rich brand as CEO two years ago.

He’s no stranger to the challenge of preserving an icon while providing reasons other than nostalgia to visit. Among his three prior high-level restaurant positions was a hitch as SVP of restaurants for Nathan’s Famous, one of the few restaurant chains that started before Frisch’s did (1916 vs.1948).

The irony, says Walker, is that age doesn’t insulate a brand from the market issues that can vex an upstart whose paint is barely dry.

Although most industry veterans would put Frisch's in family dining, since it operates through all three dayparts, he regards it as a casual-dining operation because it offers full service along with a drive-thru. And with that inclusion come all the issues that abound in the casual market: climbing food and labor costs, traffic erosion and trade-downs to fast-casual ventures.

“The problems Frisch’s faces are the same ones the industry faces,” he says during a Zoom interview.

Systemwide sales fell 5.5% last year on a 6.6% reduction in unit count, to $183.7 million, according to Technomic.

But, Walker insists, the regional brand is working off a solid foundation. Since the Frisch family signed on as a Big Boy franchisee after World War II, enticing a newly mobile middle class with the treat of a double-patty burger called the Big Boy, the concept has been a champion of value and innovation, Walker says. He contends that those attributes are as readily connected with the brand as the Big Boy mascot.

That doesn’t mean its menu is a work in constant process. “That legacy customer who grew up on us, they don’t even look at the menu,” he says. They know exactly what they want because they’ve been ordering it for years. In the morning, it may be a trip to the concept’s signature breakfast bar, or maybe the seafood bar during Lent.

As someone who grew up in the Midwest, “hot fudge cake still has a place in my heart,” confesses Walker, referring to the dessert that’s followed many an order for a Big Boy burger.

He characterizes the operation’s approach to the menu as a balancing act: “Keeping core those menu items that people know, but also making sure we have new news,” he says, voicing the mantra of many a chain whose age is in double-digits. Today’s bill of fare sports a smashed version of a Big Boy burger, but you won’t find bowls, chicken wings or wraps.

“If I’m looking for a boba tea, that not what I want to get from Frisch’s,” he says. But an extension of its popular milkshake line is a different story, he adds.

The chain has a similar approach to technology. “When people come into Frisch’s, they’re not looking to order from a tablet, they’re looking for a smile and a hot cup of coffee,” says Walker. “Frisch’s is not chasing innovation for the sake of innovation.”

Unit closings

Sometimes, though, time can be cruel. Frisch’s recently closed five units, trimming the store count to 90 three-daypart restaurants across Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana in what Walker terms a “real estate correction.”

The residential markets that had fed the stores for years had been eroded by changes in the areas and their compositions, he explains. They’re no longer where the brand wants to be.

Walker is quick to note that a new Frisch’s opened as the five units were shutting. It’s in the Cincinnati airport, and is going gang-busters, in no small part because of nostalgia, he says. People who grew up in the brand’s core market area are eager to give their old favs a try.

Will there be more openings?

“We’re looking at the best way to grow the brand,” he says, without divulging further details.

“This is an iconic brand,” he says, “It’s still a brand that lives in the hearts and minds of consumers across the U.S.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously gave Walker's position at Nathan's as CEO. He was actually SVP of restaurants. 

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