Bismarck Big Boy Restaurant
Bismarck’s Big Boy Restaurant (previously known as McDowell’s Big Boy) is an iconic fast food drive-through restaurant founded by Harley McDowell in 1954. It is considered a local landmark that holds strong historical significance. Other regional Big Boy locations also once existed in Fargo, Minot, Dickinson, and Medora, but the original Bismarck restaurant is the sole survivor.
Although penned as a drive-in upon opening, Big Boy is more appropriately defined as a drive-through – the city’s first (A & W predated Big Boy in 1950, but as a traditional drive-in with car hop service). It is the city’s second-oldest continuously operating restaurant, behind only the Broadway Dairy Queen (opened in 1948). As well, the restaurant holds the distinction as being only the fourth Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee, which was spun off independently in the 1970s under the same ownership. Despite ending its formal affiliation with KFC, Big Boy continues to serve similar menu offerings.
Other than the name and famous statues adorning its lawn, little about the local Big Boy resembles that of the today’s national chain. In addition to its unique menu, it features no indoor seating (although its former downtown location did) and is perhaps the only Big Boy to still include a drive-through. Nationally, Big Boy abandoned the drive-through format in 1964.
The Bismarck Big Boy features a traditional fast food menu, emphasizing burgers and chicken buckets. It is best distinguished for its Alpine Burger, Pizza Burger “Flying Style” (cooked in a sandwich press), gravy fries, and Hot-n-Tots – a cinnamon cola. The Big Boy Original, allegedly the inspiration for McDonald’s Big Mac, is the only carry over from the national chain.
Unlike its national counterparts, the Bismarck Big Boy does not featuring breakfast items.
Bismarck’s Big Boy was founded in 1954 by traveling salesman Harley McDowell, who was inspired after seeing one in another state during a business trip. It was Bismarck’s first drive-through restaurant (although it was originally referred to as a drive-in).
Initially, McDowell operated without a formal licensing agreement from Big Boy. Robert C. Wian Enterprises – the franchising arm of Big Boy – sued McDowell in 1959 for his unauthorized use of the name and concept. The suit particularly focused on McDowell’s use of the iconic Big Boy double-decker sandwich. The suit requested that McDowell cease use of the Big Boy name and for a judgment to be filed for retroactive payment. The suit was settled, allowing McDowell to operate as a formal franchisee.
McDowell sold the Bismarck restaurants to Stan and Bonnie Rothenberger in 1978, who continued ownership until at least the late 2010s. Rothenberger, who was manager of the Municipal Country Club, was not the highest of five bids for the businesses, but McDowell selected him for “his established reputation for honest business and quality food service.” The agreement called for McDowell to remain on the board for seven years. As of 2019, it is owned by Chad Wachter. Since acquiring the restaurant, Wachter has launched several improvements, including an easier-to-read menu board and an improved drive-through exit.
A second location opened downtown in 1970 on the southeast corner of 6th Street and Thayer Avenue. Contrary to its original location, the restaurant included indoor seating and no drive-though. It remained there until 1982, when Q&R Clinic commenced a major expansion project that included a six-story tower, demolishing the building and closing off a block of Thayer Avenue.
Big Boy then relocated across the street to 210 N 6th Street, when it was appropriately renamed “Across The Street Restaurant.” The building was originally home to Ressler Cafe. By summer 1988, the restaurant evolved into Burgie’s restaurant. Burgies still offered some Big Boy items, including the Alpine Burger, with an expanded menu that also included breakfast, soup, and beer. Burgies closed in December 1990, again after Q&R asserted control of the building.
McDowell also established Big Boy restaurants outside of Bismarck, including in Medora (in 1972), Fargo, Dickinson, and Minot. The original Bismarck location is the sole survivor.
In 1957, McDowell became only the fourth franchisee of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). For years, both restaurants were incorporated together in a hybrid format. Big Boy founder McDowell ultimately became a close friend of KFC founder “Colonel” Harland Sanders. While its formal affiliation with KFC has since been dissolved, Big Boy continues to serve similar offerings.
In the early 1970s, after Sanders sold off KFC’s franchising operation and the chain became more prominent, the chicken company’s new ownership objected to operating both franchises together. The two entities were split when McDowell sold the restaurants in 1978, with its new owners opening a free-standing KFC location adjacent to Gateway Mall, where it remains today.
A second freestanding KFC location, on the southeast corner of 3rd and Bowen, opened in 1981 upon converting a former Texaco station on the site, which was more recently housing Lancelot Realty. That location was demolished in May 2011 for HuHot.
Despite ending its formal affiliation with KFC, Bismarck’s Big Boy continues to sell menu items often associated with KFC, including gravy fries and chicken buckets.