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Big Boy Will Test @burger Fast-Casual Prototype

Big Boy, the iconic American burger concept that looks retro but really just dates to 1936, is recognizing that tastes, times and business models have changed. In mid-July, Big Boy will open @burger, an upscale fast-casual burger concept with beer and wine in Ann Arbor, Mich., with intentions of opening more.

That doesn’t mean the full-service Big Boy restaurant is doomed. In fact, the latest  updated look for the mothership will be unveiled this fall, says Keith Sirois, CEO for Warren, Mich.-based Big Boy Restaurants International LLC (separate from both Burrbank, Calif.-based Bob’s Big Boy and Cincinnati-based Frisch’s Big Boy.) That new look will owe nothing to fast casual in general or @burger in particular. “There’s still a strong market for mothers with kids or seniors who want a place to sit and be served. Big Boy provides that,” Sirois says.

He added that the impetus for the company to consider something like @burger, which was first reported on, was because “5,000- to 8,000-square-foot restaurants [like traditional Big Boys] just aren’t practical any more.”

There’s also “whitespace” in the fast-casual burger market that @burger can fill, he says. “There are a lot of fast-casual hamburger restaurants coming up, but many of them are throwbacks to ‘50s diners in style. We’ll be nicer.”

Sirois says @burger will differ from those concepts and differ from Big Boy. Nothing in the new restaurant will signal its connection to Big Boy. It will be a “high-quality, comfortable environment where adults can eat and socialize.” Sirois joined Big Boy as CEO in January 2009 after retiring as CEO of quick-service drive-thru chain Checkers/Rally’s. “I know something about burgers; they’re important to me,” he says. “We looked at all the fast-casual concepts that are doing well, from Panera Bread to Pei Wei [Asian Diner] and I guess you can say @burger will be a bit of a mashup of all those.”

@burger will use open-flame grills for a menu that includes signature burgers and chicken plus salads, fries and more. More than 200 different burger builds have been created and will cycle on and off the menu, Sirois says. In addition to the always-popular bacon-and-Cheddar burger, @burger will feature such choices as a BBQ Bacon Velveeta Burger, Caprese Burger (tomatoes and mozzarella), Trashcan Burger (“With just about anything you can think of thrown on there,” says Sirois) and more. Standard burger size will be 7 ounces, with an option of a 4-ounce patty for smaller appetites and kids.

The Ann Arbor location was chosen because of its proximity to the Warren headquarters (“So we can watch and touch and adjust.”) and the town’s upscale demographics, Sirois says. Additionally, the downtown storefront location is close to the University of Michigan’s 40,000-student campus.