During the 1970s, an American roadside icon was a presence throughout Metro Toronto.
He’s an icon of the North American roadside. Garbed in his red-and-white checked overalls, cowlick resisting the wind, Big Boy holds his signature double-decker hamburger aloft with pride. During his heyday from the 1950s through the 1970s, Big Boy’s smiling face graced drive-ins and family restaurants owned by franchisees whose names spanned the alphabet from Abdow’s to Yoda’s (no relation to a certain Jedi master). He even had a long-running comic book whose early issues were written by Stan Lee.
Torontonians welcomed Big Boy in 1969, when the Canadian franchise rights were acquired from Marriott Corporation (along with the Roy Rogers fast food chain) by a subsidiary of mining/real estate firm Canadian Goldale. Within months, the first local outlet opened at 1540 Albion Road. For a time, it seemed hockey might be Big Boy’s draw—stars like Gordie Howe dropped by for autograph sessions, while Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau was interested in operating locations in Quebec.
In charge of the venture was John Bitove Sr., who had entered the restaurant business via a 14-stool Avenue Road coffee shop 20 years earlier. Applying his initials to the chain, Bitove gained full control of JB’s Big Boy within two years of its launch. During the 1970s, Bitove ran a combined 40 Big Boy and Roy Rogers outlets. His children worked in the restaurants, training for their future roles in the expansion of the family’s catering empire. “I learned all the nuances of the quick service business,” John Bitove Jr. once observed of his experience in a downtown Big Boy, which included cleaning tables, cooking, and running the cash register.
The downtown locations were ideal for workers on the run but not in such a hurry that they felt like grabbing an Egg McMuffin. “I settled on Big Boy’s because it was closest when I had this great craving for pancakes,” dental receptionist Elaine Fuller told the Star when it interviewed people about their fast-food breakfast habits in 1979. “I had to be at the office at 9 a.m. this week for special appointments. Ordinarily I make my own breakfast at home. It’s a real treat to let someone else prepare a hot, fast breakfast of pancakes for you.”
The chain didn’t last much longer, as Bitove Sr. sold the Canadian rights to Michigan Big Boy franchisee Elias Brothers. While Big Boy continued on in southwest Ontario for two more decades, it vanished from the Toronto market. Statues periodically surfaced, including one that watched over customers at Sam the Record Man’s Yonge Street flagship. Local comedians also got mileage out of Big Boy, from an SCTV parody starring John Candy to Mike Myers’ use of a statue as Dr. Evil’s spaceship.
Additional material from the January 21, 1969 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 2, 1979 and June 9, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star.