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Developing a Relationship

The historic Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Burbank is turning 60 years old and owner Philip MacDonald couldn’t be happier. Some fifteen years ago he would have eagerly leveled the place to build a high rise had preservationists not stood in his way, winning the designation of the oldest Bob’s Big Boy in America as a California Historical Point of Interest. Today MacDonald strives to preserve the Bob’s Big Boy legacy, viewing the Burbank location as a local treasure. It’s also a family heirloom. The restaurant was built in 1949 by his father, Scott MacDonald, who leased the restaurant and the land around it to Bob Wian, the founder and creator of the Bob’s Big Boy Chain. After MacDonald’s plans to build a 20-story high-rise on that location were trumped by the historical designation, he took over operations of the restaurant in 1993 going from working in construction and development to becoming a franchisee for the first time. MacDonald was quick to make significant improvements to the place returning to fresh made patties instead of frozen ones, adding an exterior patio, rehabilitating the tower sign, remodeling the dining room, reintroducing “Car Hop” service on Saturday and Sunday nights; and having the classic car show in the parking lot on Friday nights. The idea was to restore the place to its glory days of the 50’s. The vintage building, designed as a drive-in, features immense signage, and speaks of the city’s history of romance with the automobile. MacDonald’s incursion into the restaurant business leapfrogged into other franchises. Aside from the Bob’s Big Boy location in Burbank, he also owns and operates ten Baja Fresh locations on the West Coast and in Virginia and Maryland, as well as five Panera Bread locations from Santa Monica to Torrance. For the 60th anniversary celebration of the Bob’s Big Boy iconic restaurant where The Beatles, James Dean and Bob Hope all stopped to eat, the place is also getting a “green” makeover. A new 26 kW Canadian Solar photovoltaic panel system installed by HelioPower, allows Bob’s to generate a portion of its own electricity. A “Sixty and Solar” celebration will take place in September and patrons are encouraged to film their best memories of the restaurant to be displayed on the website www.sixtyandsolar.com. History of the Big Boy Chain In 1967 Marriott Corp. bought the chain from Wian, and operated it until 1987. During that time most of the 125 Bob’s in Southern California were converted to Coco’s or Carrows. In 1987 one of the larger franchise operators, Elias Brothers, moved the headquarters of the company to Warren Mich. and took over operations until declaring bankruptcy in 2000. Following the bankruptcy, the chain was sold to its current owner Robert Liggett Jr., who renamed the company Big Boy Restaurants International. The company is the franchiser for more than 455 Big Boy Restaurants in the United States and Canada, including the Burbank location. Big Boy Restaurants International is not affiliated with FRISCH’S Big Boy Restaurants, which also own the rights to the Big Boy name, and operates 87 Big Boy restaurants, and franchises another 28 to other Big Boy operations. Question: You used to hang out at the coffee shop slurping “the world’s thickest malts” and eating burgers with your high school buddies. Looking back now, what most surprises you about celebrating the 60th anniversary of Bob’s Big Boy? Answer: I guess that I’m 61 and I’m still here. We did this on our 50th anniversary, made a big deal of it, poured 190 tons of sand out there, and I can’t believe 10 years have gone by since then and here we are again. Q: You had a beach party in the parking lot to celebrate the 50th anniversary. What do you have planned for the 60th? A: I thought we’d do something again to conmemorate it, tie it in with the community. This time we used a different tie-in medium, that being solar installation, so we decided to go “Sixty and Solar” and see how that works. We’re now joining the 21st century with solar power. We put 132 solar panels out on the car port. The structure was there so why not? So we’re kind of celebrating that our fossil fuel print has been diminished by 10 percent. September 24th is the “flip the switch” ceremony. Q: How is business? How has Bob’s fared in the recession? A: Believe it or not, among all our concepts this one is computing positively, up four percent through the first six months. Everything else is down a bit. We’re getting more frequency and more visits from folks who are looking for value. We’ve always wanted to be the low cost producer, relatively, for the quality of food that we have, and so right now that is really resonating with the current economic climate. Q: Do you have any plans for expansion? A: We’re actually going to convert our Baja Fresh in Pasadena to a Bob’s. It’s big enough -3600 feet – none of the other Baja’s are big enough, but that one is. Q: What is the secret to making it out of this recession on top? A: You want to be on the low-end of the food chain, obviously. If I was a high end steak house I’d be hurting. It’s no longer fashionable .opulent luxury is out. And what’s being positioned in the media, particularly for lunch is the $5 lunch. It used to be the $7-$8, but people have to go it in their minds that that’s what they should be spending for lunch. So it’s a whole paradigm shift of people’s thought processes, it’s no longer chic to be seen with extravagant things. So we just happen to be in that sweet spot with people getting good food at a good reasonable price. Q: What about the nostalgia people feel for this place? A: It’s absolutely crucial to this. That’s why we put up a lot of local flavor, and that’s one of the reasons we decided we wanted to make this the local hometown favorite, a place where people would want to come and congregate, both young and old. That’s one of the reasons we initiated our charity program, where we gave one percent of the dining room sales to a designated charity each month and people would come in and vote for their charity. And for the most part it’s been all the local charities. Q: Back in 1992 you waged and lost a battle against preservationists. You wanted to level the Bob’s for a retail center or office complex, citing that the potential value of the land was10 times what the restaurant earned. How do you feel about the way things turned out? A: We had plans for a 20 story high rise office building; fortunately sometimes the best deals you do are the ones you don’t do. And that happened in this case. I suppose I should thank the historical society and the LA Conservancy. I took my high priced lawyer down there to the Hall of Records and argued and argued and lost five to nothing and I remember Zev Yaroslavsky saying ‘Mr. MacDonald I don’t believe you know what a little gold mine you have here.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Gold mine huh? Oh you want hamburgers; okay I’ll give you hamburgers. We’ll bring it back to the 50’s when we had cars lined up around the block three times.’ So it was partial revenge but also, that was the hand I was dealt so you might as well make the best of what you got. And quite frankly, it’s just been a series of incremental improvements, we kept building and building. And here we are today. Q: Is there anything you would want to put here now to replace Bob’s Big Boy? A: Nothing. It’s an integral part of the community. It’s a live museum because if you’re out here on car night or any other night, you get your whole cast of characters, and it’s also a legacy to me because my dad built it. So it’s been in the family and it’s just an heir loom. Q: Before taking over operations in 1993, you were running your Newport Beach-based development firm, The Philip MacDonald Co. What happened to that company? A: It was a consultancy of several large developers who didn’t want onsite staff. And they were specific tasks, like there was the 25 story high rise in Glendale it was an18 month job and then there was another 18 month job doing the big Atria office building next to the Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard. But then the restaurant started taking a life of its own and I just started putting that on idle and not taking on any more new work and finally just phased it out and dropped it. Q: Growing up did you ever imagine you’d be operating the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy? A: Never. I studied to become a Civil Engineer at USC, and my dad was a civil engineer so I figured that’s what I was going to be doing, building and construction and development. And this is a whole new segue into retail, I had no clue what that was about, so it’s been a career change and maybe a midlife crisis. In retrospect, pretty good. Q: So you were initially following in your father’s footsteps. What would he say right now about your career change? A: He’d probably say thanks for saving the Big Boy. Hopefully he’d be proud. Unfortunately he died in 1985 so he didn’t get to see the real fruits of the changeover. Q: How exactly did you end up in here again? A: Probably five years prior to 93 when we took over, we started pushing my dad: ‘let’s assemble some new property here, we need the whole city block, we’ve got to go vertical’. And we aquired parcels in the back but I could never get the piece in the corner, the Toluca Lake pharmacy, so we were missing that little piece. I could have built around them, and we did have plans for that, but in ’92 the historical society dropped the bomb, which pushed us into a whole new direction. We owned this site and we had collected a little rent, but now we were going to become owner operators and that was a whole new thing we had no clue about. Q: Have you enjoyed the journey? A: I, we, the family didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. I got real lucky. Q: What was your childhood like? A: Grew up in the La Crescenta area with two sisters and a brother. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My mom was the greatest in the world. I attended Lincoln Elementary, Park Junior High, Cresecenta Valley, did all the things we were supposed to do at the time, athletics, all that. Q: You’re encouraging people to film their best memories of the restaurant to be displayed on the Sixty and Solar website. What is your favorite memory? A: Coming here with my family to this particular Bob’s because we built it and owned the land, and then going to a movie or something afterwards. The one in Montrose was more in our neighborhood and that was where we went after football games in high school, just congregating and ordering a plate of fries and a coffee and trying to split it among eight guys. Q: Did you ever bring a date here? A: Dates? Our dates were our cars so we did come here. We’d see other cars. You’d always wonder who’s faster so you’d throw down the gauntlet and meet over on Forest Lawn drive and find out. That was the common practice. Q: What car did you drive? A: I had a 58 Chevy and then a 61 Corvette, I bought it out of the junkyard and fixed it up. Q: Who else in the MacDonald family is involved with the restaurant, and does it look like any future generations of MacDonalds might continue to operate it? A: My older sister lives in Berkeley and is retired, travels a lot. My younger sister lives in Altadena, teaches ESL, busy with that full time. And my brother runs a trucking operation in Commerce. Q: What about your kids? A: There’s nobody that’s employed here. One of my sons, Reed, is very good with photography and video and final cut editing so I hired him to come up. He did all the interviews and construction photos of the solar installation [for the website Sixty and Solar]. My sister did work here as a waitress during her summers, in 1964 when the Beatles were here. Q: Your son hasn’t expressed any interest in taking over someday? A: Well, as the economy grinds on more and more, I get less resistance, I’ll put it that way. Q: What is the real story behind the Big Boy name and the famous statue? A: The folklore is that there was this guy named Bob Woodruff, a little fat kid over in Glendale who used to hang out at the pantry and somebody mentioned to Bob, ‘he looks like a big boy’, or something, and he became the model or the poster child for the character creation, which became the Big Boy. Q: What ever happened to some of those Big Boy statues in the Valley? A: They went to a lot of fraternity lobbies. We had two initially taken from here so we drilled a hole in Big Boy’s head and filled him with about 500 pounds of sand and locked him down, so we haven’t had one taken in 10 years. Q: What new challenges are on the horizon for you? What’s next? A: We’re on autopilot here; we’re just trying not to screw it up. We’re going to train our folks here for Pasadena and some will move over there. So our challenge really is to duplicate the experience that people get here. You can’t duplicate it because this is a historical building, but as much as you can try and recreate that nostalgia feeling. It’s amazing. It’s still out there and mainstream, people’s affinity for the Big Boy is unbelievable. It’s probably a lot of great childhood memories that are just home and heart for the folks. I just love coming here watching the young kids with the balloons and just eating a Big Boy and getting it all over their faces, ice scream spread all over the table, and I say, ‘yeah, that was what it was like’. I just love coming here because it reminds me of my dad and every time I’m here, I’m here once a week, I’ll have a Big Boy. SNAPSHOT: Philip MacDonald Title: Owner, Bob’s Big Boy Home: Irvine, Calif. Personal: Married with four children

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