Rachael of Maple Grove asks:
Hey, what's the deal with the Big Boy restaurant statue on top of Big V's Saloon on University Avenue in St. Paul?
We all know how easy it is to get tunnel vision while commuting—turning license plates into puzzles, or burying our noses in our phones while riding the Green Line—but Rachael's question made me uniquely self-conscious about how long Big Boy might have lorded over Midway’s busiest intersection, unnoticed.
Even in their glory days, Big Boy restaurants weren’t prominent in Minnesota, with only a handful appearing under the name Marc’s. The chain is like a cousin of Perkins, or any nationwide freeway-adjacent franchise specializing in lots of booths, pancakes topped with whipped cream, bad steak, and bottomless coffee.
Their mascot is a white guy with a pompadour, wearing red checkered overalls, lifting a cheeseburger high into the air, immortalized in pop culture as the vehicle for Dr. Evil's rocket in Austin Powers. Whatever family was behind the operation would append their name to the restaurant, lending an air of personalization to a franchise with a consistent mascot.
At home in West Virginia in the '80s and '90s, we'd use our local Elby's Big Boy statue as a geographical marker for giving out-of-towners directions. At the end of that era, Frisch’s Big Boy over in Toledo became infamous for having its mascot stolen and dismembered. For what felt like weeks, parts of poor Big Boy kept turning up on doorsteps of fast food chains around town. Tied on his severed limbs were serial killer-style notes pasted together from newspaper clippings reading things like “Big Boy is Dead.” Within seven-ish years, the chain had mostly fizzled in the US. Japan is now home to the majority of Big Boys on the planet.
So, uh, Big Boy can be a vehicle for a lot of cultural stuff – and for no good reason. The question of why Big Boy is on the roof of a not-Big Boy in the heart of St. Paul’s Midway is great.
When I showed up at the Midway Saloon (née Big V’s) on the hottest day known to man, a mosaiced Charlie Brown greeted me at the door, as did David Tolchiner, owner of the Midway Saloon. It didn't take long for Tolchiner to begin spilling Big Boy’s secrets, beginning with why the mascot's on the roof in the first place.
All the while, Big Boy beamed benevolently from on high. He seemed to be “alive” and well, with limbs intact.
“It’s for yuks,” Tolchiner smiles. “We had him on the stage for a while, then we put him up there about four months ago.”
The key to noticing Midway Saloon’s Big Boy involves not already being at or too close to the Midway Saloon. “You can see him really well from the stadium’s brew hall,” chimed in Joe, a bartender at the saloon, referencing the 96-tap emporium inside Minnesota United’s brand new Allianz Field, positioned directly across the way from the bar, which is open for matches and non-gamedays alike.
“And the train platform,” added Tolchiner.
“We’re going to go up there and put a pint of Surly in its hand at some point… He still has his hamburger in his hand. No wait, it’s a cheeseburger—that’s important.” Tolchiner was quick to correct himself, appearing to be intimately familiar with Big Boy and its particulars. “And we don’t even serve burgers.”
Suddenly, a bar regular to my right also had some questions. “Did you get it from Mankato? Happy Chef?”
“No. That’s… Happy Chef. This is Big Boy.” Tolchiner is a very calm, patient man, with a dry sense of humor. “Big Boy gets people in here—like you.”
In Hey, What’s the Deal With... we’re tackling everyday oddities, random curiosities, and what-the-actual-fuck mysteries about life in the Twin Cities. Got a pressing but somewhat trivial Q about something you saw, heard, or thought about while stuck in traffic? Email email@example.com, and our crack investigative team just might try to figure it out.
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