The loud checkered overalls of Bob's Big Boy could soon stop blaring down at California hamburger lovers.
Marriott Corp., which owns the Glendale-based chain, confirmed Thursday that it is converting a handful of the coffee shops into a new "family restaurant concept," without the famous statues of a smiling, chubby boy with his thumbs tucked into the suspenders on his red-and-white overalls.
If the experiment succeeds, all 214 Bob's Big Boy restaurants could be redone, erasing the name and statues in nine states, said Robert T. Souers, a spokesman for Marriott.
He declined to discuss what the new restaurants would look like, but said: "If the test is terrific and it turns out this concept is much better than Bob's, we'd be crazy not to convert them."
The possible disappearance of one of America's most famous chubby children has already drawn a protest. Brian Hilton of San Diego, a former Glendale resident who describes himself as a family friend of founder Robert C. Wian, has been writing protest letters to newspapers and phoning Big Boy lawyers.
Hilton charges that Marriott is wrecking a Southern California institution and will break the hearts of the region's children. "I've seen it, hundreds of kids . . . They'll run over to that Bob's Big Boy statue and hug it."
Hilton wants to see the original Bob's Big Boy in Glendale rebuilt as a two-story "living monument" to Wian, a former Glendale mayor, with a museum of Big Boy history.
Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott's actions come on the heels of a change in ownership of the Big Boy name.
Until last November, Marriott owned 214 Bob's Big Boy restaurants in nine states as well as the franchising rights for Big Boy throughout North America. Marriott sold those franchising rights in November to Elias Bros. Restaurants.
The Warren, Mich., company owns and operates about 250 Big Boy restaurants in Michigan, Ohio and Canada, Executive Vice President William H. Morgan said. Altogether there are about 950 Big Boy restaurants with at least a dozen names, including JB's, Elias, Fritsch's, Marc's and Bob's.
Marriott, through Bob's Big Boy, remains a Big Boy franchisee, but it indicated in a 1987 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the business had been less than spectacular. Bob's Big Boy attracted fewer customers and sales "declined substantially" in 1986, the company said.
Industry sources said that the first restaurants converted will be in San Diego. But spokesman Souers declined to confirm it, but said, "You wouldn't be off base if you were looking for the test in that area."
Marriott most likely will seek to upgrade the quality of food, service and decor in the restaurants in a bid to lure more affluent customers, said Michael G. Mueller, a restaurant and hotel analyst with Montgomery Securities, a San Francisco investment firm. Prices probably will rise, and the emphasis likely will be on serving dinners rather than breakfasts and lunches, he said.
By starting a new chain with a new symbol, name and menu, Marriott will also be able to expand nationwide without worrying about encroaching on other Big Boy franchise territories, he said.
More Affluent Image
At the same time, Elias would be free to open Big Boy restaurants in California if Marriott does cease to use the Big Boy name, Marriott spokesman Souers said.
Big Boy took another blow this week when Salt Lake City-based JB's Restaurants announced that after this summer it would no longer use the name on its 110 restaurants in 10 Western states, not including California. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Clark D. Jones said the company wanted to project a more affluent image and felt it was getting very little for its franchise fee payments.
"We pay over a million dollars in franchise fees a year. . . . We weren't really getting anything from the franchiser other than the symbol," he said.
Elias Bros. has yet to decide whether it will open Big Boy restaurants in JB's Restaurants' territories or sell new franchises, Elias Executive Vice President William H. Morgan said.