The Frisch’s Big Boy is a local burger icon. Its towering two quarter pound beef patties, dressed with special tartar sauce, shredded lettuce and dill pickle slices has been eaten by nearly five generations of hungry Cincinnatians. But could this icon of fast food actually be a knockoff, from a Northern Kentucky icon, just as old? According to Michael Brauninger, the new owner of Green Derby in Newport, Kentucky, the Big Boy IS a knockoff.
Michael relayed this story to me this past weekend on what I thought would be a low key late Sunday afternoon lunch at the Green Derby with my parents. A favorite of my mother’s and her high school gal pals, who meet there at Christmas to celebrate, the Green Derby is one of northern Kentucky’s oldest and most beloved restaurants. This year the Derby celebrates 70 years since Helen Azbill Haller Cummins started the place with her second husband, Wilbur in 1947. We chose to eat there for their fish. They’ve been awarded best fish sandwich in the Cincy by CityBeat several years in a row, but they also have great blackened fish – grouper, halibut, and sole – on their menu.
Brauninger bought the Green Derby a year ago, on April Fool’s Day in 2015. And he’s done anything but fooling around with reinvigorating the historic restaurant. He has amped up the menu, added a full bourbon bar, added an outdoor patio, hired a southern pastry chef to make their homemade pies, and is reinstituting some of the older menu items.
Two of these old items are faves with the regulars. The potato puffs were created by Helen as a knockoff of hush puppies, she and her husband Wilbur sampled on their way from Florida tasting roadfood eateries to create their original menu. Their signature salad is a take on the Cincinnati favorite, hot slaw, but uses wilted lettuce instead of cabbage, which is easier to eat and uh-em, digest.
Another one of the first menu items on Green Derby’s menu was the Derby Boy – a double decker hamburger, with two quarter pounder burgers, shredded lettuce, dill pickle slices, and homemade tartar sauce. Sound familiar? Well, this was introduced in May of 1947 when Green Derby opened.
Now the Big Boy burger is older than that. It was introduced by the Wian brothers in 1936 Glendale, California, at their then Bob’s Pantry restaurant. But it was a double decker burger with two quarter pound burgers, dressed with mayonnaise and their homemade red relish – something commonly known at the time as Thousand Island Dressing. The ingenious brothers Wian conceived the Big Boy burger because it actually takes less time to cook two quarter pound burgers than one half pound burger. Then they found a baker who could cut a bun into threes so they could stack them.
Cincinnati restauranteur, David Fritsch visited the Wian brothers in California in 1946, obtaining the first Big Boy Franchise. The Wians were concerned with other knockoff burger joints outside of California stealing their idea and riding on their brands’ coattails. So, they let Frisch have a superb deal on a four state franchise territory, (Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Florida) for $1 a year, so they could stop these knockoffs. That’s a bit ironic, considering the context of this story.
Frisch turned his Fairfax Mainliner restaurant, that he had opened in 1939, into the first Frisch’s Big Boy franchise and began serving the Big Boy hamburger there in 1946. However, his Big Boy was originally served with mayonnaise, not the tartar sauce and shredded lettuce that we know today. However, early menus show that he served the tartar sauce on his cheeseburger and hamburgers. A 1949 menu I included in my book, Historic Restaurants of Cincinnati, shows that by then, all their burgers were dressed with their signature tartar sauce, then called Frisch Sauce.
But, the story goes, according to Brauninger, that in July of 1947, AFTER Green Derby introduced their Derby Boy burger, that Frisch’s converted their Big Boy to a tartar sauce, shredded lettuce dressed burger. They realized that it was more economical to use one condiment on all their burgers, rather than have another SKU in their system.
At the time in 1947, Newport was Sin City, with gambling, adult entertainment and all the night life that brought the mob element to our area. Before there was Las Vegas, Nevada, Newport, Kentucky, led the country in gambling and adult entertainment. And, the Green Derby, was smack dab in the middle of all this activity, meaning its Derby Boy burger would have been known to the restaurant set.
So, Brauninger believes that it’s highly likely that the Frisch family saw this, stole the idea and the Frisch’s Big Boy became what it is today, thanks to the ingenuity of Mrs. Helen Cummins. Of course, history has lost this fact, and gives the tartar sauce notoriety to Mr. Frisch, not Mrs. Cummins.
Sometimes it’s not the first-to-market innovator who gets the credit for the invention, it’s the one who takes it to the next level. And Frisch’s, with their 67 locations in their four state area, has sold more Big Boys than Green Derby has sold Derby Boys. But let’s not give them all the credit. One entrepreneurial woman, whose concept is still going strong, thanks to Michael Brauninger, was the woman behind the Big Boy.