Big Boy's

For years, motorists who drove along Route 40 between St. Louis and Kansas City saw roadside signs advertising fried chicken at Big Boy's Restaurant in Wright City, Missouri. Travelers were also enticed by the figure of a stout man with a toothsome smile, carrying a chicken on a platter.

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James William Chaney was born in Hickman County, Kentucky on January 23, 1881. He was married in 1902 to Miss Sue Ingram, and to this union two sons were born, Emory and Ray. The Chaneys left Hickman County in 1918 and moved to Arkansas.

On June 7, 1924, the Chaneys were on their way back from a trip to Colorado. They arrived in Wright City at breakfast time and stopped for ham and eggs at Bill Fricke’s restaurant, the Silver Moon.

At that moment, Chaney was a bit unsettled. He had sold his stock farm in Arkansas and taken his family to Colorado with the idea of relocating there. But he changed his mind and they were on their way back to Arkansas when they stopped at Wright City.

As he ate his ham and eggs, Chaney looked out over the little town and something he saw pleased him. He decided that Wright City would be a good place to make a new start. He purchased the Silver Moon from Bill Fricke, and by noon the Chaneys were in the restaurant business, serving lunch.

Mr. and Mrs. J. W. "Big Boy" Chaney (left),
Emory Chaney (top right) and Ray Chaney (bottom right)

J. W. Chaney, called "Big Boy" because he had been the biggest member of his family, wanted to give his customers the kind of food he liked, and give them all they could eat. One of the things he liked was fried chicken. So he offered fried chicken, cooked the way he liked it, and served family style, with plenty on the platter and plenty more where that came from.

Chaney changed the name of his new eatery to Big Boy’s Restaurant and hung out a fried chicken sign. The new name caught on. There was something expansive about it; something suggestive of good eating and good living. The fried chicken, piled high on the platter, did the rest. In no time, people were talking about the chicken dinners at Big Boy’s Restaurant in Wright City.

Coincidentally, on the day J. W. Chaney bought Bill Fricke’s Silver Moon restaurant, the contract was signed for the construction of Route 40 through the Wright City area. The highway engineers routed the road a block away from Big Boy's Restaurant, but that was alright with Chaney. The space, with its seating capacity of 14, four at the counter and 10 at the tables, was getting too small. If the highway wouldn’t come to him, Chaney would go to the highway.

Chaney bought a building owned by the Masonic Lodge and remodeled it, with the restaurant downstairs and a hall for the Masons upstairs. The new restaurant opened on July 4, 1925. Signs went up on the highway with the figure of a stout man with a toothsome smile, carrying a chicken on a platter. Travelers followed the signs to Big Boy’s, where everything was served family style. "Satisfy the Hungry Customer" was Chaney's motto, and the hungrier they were the better.

Big Boy's Restaurant
(click image to enlarge)

It was easy to remember "Big Boy" Chaney. Not altogether because of his size, for he carried his 275 pounds lightly. Mostly it was because he was a friendly man who welcomed wayfarers heartily and, having fed them, sent them happily on their way.

It was the usual thing for customers to drive the 50 miles from St. Louis for a meal at Big Boy’s Restaurant, and not unusual for Kansas City people to make Wright City the objective of a day’s driving, turning back after filling up on fried chicken. Frequently, there were guests from greater distances. Chicken dinners were featured at $1, with all the chicken you wanted to eat. Drinks weren't an incentive; Big Boy didn’t believe in that. He didn’t serve them and he didn’t permit alcohol to be brought in.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb 28, 1932

After a while, Big Boy's needed more room. The Masons moved out and Chaney remodeled the building again, adding additional dining space. Eventually, the dining rooms accommodated 100 customers.

In 1940, J. W. Chaney, the big man with the big heart, died of a heart attack at the age of 59. But from the beginning, Big Boy's Restaurant had been a family affair, and it continued on that way. Chaney's sons, Emory and Ray, divided the management of the restaurant and their mother supervised the cooking. When a stranger came in and asked for "Big Boy," Emory would step forward and say he was one of them.

It took a lot of chickens to feed Big Boy's hungry customers family style – 40,000 a year in normal times. On summertime Sundays, it was not unusual for 600 to be served. At rush times, the cooking was constant and the serving without delay. At other times, meals were served within 15 minutes. In 1945, the business had expanded to the point where the Chaneys decided to raise their own chickens in order to have an ample supply at all times.

In October of 1948, a new section of Highway 40 was opened which moved the highway a block north of Big Boy's. But Big Boy's had already decided to move with the road and had erected a modern new building adjacent to the highway, which opened for business on November 13, 1948.

The new building was all on one floor and had a greater seating capacity than the old one. It was 135 feet wide by 60 feet deep, and was surrounded by a parking lot that could accommodate 200 cars.

Big Boy's Restaurant, 1949
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 23, 1948 St. Louis Star and Times, Jun 9, 1949

In 1962, after owning and managing Big Boy's for 38 years, the Chaneys sold their restaurant. While business was still booming, they were ready to retire. They continued to operate the restaurant until Christmas Eve, at which time the new owners took possession, and the business was closed for redecorating and remodeling.

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Warrenton Banner, Dec 27, 1962
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar 8, 1963
Big Boy's Restaurant, 1964

The restaurant was sold to Kurt Nathan. Nathan, an interior decorator in St. Louis, had bought 102 acres of land in Wright City in 1952 and got to know Emory Chaney. When he learned that Big Boy’s was available, he asked his daughter and her husband, Lola and Ed Baseel, to leave St. Louis and go into the restaurant business with him.

The Baseels didn’t seem like the ideal couple with whom to entrust the legend of Big Boy’s. Ed was a plumber in South St. Louis; Lola was a housewife raising two young daughters. Aside from having no restaurant experience, they weren’t exactly typical Wright City society, not the kind of people you’d expect to be running a country restaurant in a rural community of 943 souls.

"The idea was a little frightening," Lola said, "and it wasn’t made overnight. We discussed it for three or four months and decided the country would be a good place to bring up the kids."

"It was," Ed said, "the best decision I ever made."

Although Kurt Nathan said he’d stay around for three or four years to help the Baseels break into the business, he got his fill after six months, said "It’s all yours!" and went to Florida. So the Baseels were on their own. They put themselves through a crash course in "How To Run Your Own Restaurant" and somehow it all came together and worked.

What helped the Baseels the most was the "farm system" the Chaneys had developed over the years. The Chaneys had groomed three generations of employees to work in the kitchen or wait on tables. When the Baseels took over, they merely had to tap the resources that were already there.

One of the keys to Big Boy’s success was the cooks who created the dishes from scratch with the same careful attention they put into a family meal at home. Stooping over stainless steel counters in the kitchen, white-haired women cut up chickens with large scissors and made soup and marinated cole slaw. Elda Witthaus had been with Big Boy’s for 24 years; Mary Lee Bishop, a small, shy woman with 15 kids, had put in 50 years of service.

Under the Baseel’s direction, Big Boy’s continued to flourish. Although they had redecorated the dining room, remodeled the kitchen, covered a rear wall with a 25-foot oil painting of the old Chaney farm, put in a bar and added steak and fish to the menu, the restaurant hadn’t changed much from the days when Big Boy himself was frying up chicken in the kitchen.

Big Boy's Dining Room, 1964

On a typical Sunday, the restaurant would feed about 1,000 customers, most of them people who had made Sunday dinners at Big Boy’s a family tradition. When the 180 seats in the large, rectangular dining room were filled for a solid nine hours on Sundays and during the post-game hours on football Saturdays, the restaurant hummed and buzzed with diners gleefully clutching at large platters and bowls of food that were continually being brought to their tables by a crew of 25 waitresses.

The Baseels were warm, friendly hardworking people who were highly visible in the dining room. There had been times when Ed had loaned his Cadillac to strangers whose own car had broken down on the highway. There were times when the Baseels have picked up the check for locals who had been down in their luck. They were trusting and gracious.

Big Boy's Restaurant was known throughout the nation. Craig Claiborne, the noted gourmet of The New York Times, lauded Big Boy’s after a trip to the hinterlands to discover "decent dining places outside the metropolitan areas."

The New York Times, May 26, 1965

Diner Fares Well in Missouri Towns

ST. LOUIS—One of the frequent laments from travelers to the hinterlands of America concerns the dearth of decent dining places outside the metropolitan areas.

The reason for the lack – and lack there is – is transparent. In rural communities, and particularly those of modest size, the diversion of "dining out" for the simple sake of dining out is all but unknown. The community dines – and dines at times exceedingly well, one wayfaring stranger has found – in the privacy of one’s home.

There are exceptions. And for anyone interested in gastronomic Americana, the discovery of a country restaurant or other dining facility with a creditable board can be cause for rejoicing, limited or otherwise.

In a recent tour of Missouri, two meals in rustic settings are well and pleasantly remembered. They may not have been, as the guidebooks say, worth a detour, but they were certainly welcome oases for the casual and hungry passer-by.

The first of these meals came about on a trip from St. Louis to Jefferson City, the capital. The noon hour found a couple of famished souls in the vicinity of a quiet town called Wright City. There is a restaurant there, just off the highway, called Big Boy’s and the table they set is sumptuous, to say the least.

The service is both amiable and rapid. Minutes after the traveler arrives the waitress will bring forth platters of chicken or ham, cole slaw with celery seed, hot string beans, cabbage and white beans, beets, potatoes and apple sauce. With such lavish fare, there is excellent corn bread and hot clover leaf rolls.

The cost of the complete meal for one person is $2.50. The Big Boy’s serves neither cocktails, wine nor beer, but the iced tea is excellent.

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In 1985, Big Boy's changed hands again. After Ed Baseel suffered a heart attack, the Baseels decided they could no longer run the restaurant. After 23 years as owners, they sold Big Boy's to Scott and Sally King, and their son Kevin.

"Even though I just took over this place in 1985, I know there’s a lot of tradition surrounding it, and I’m trying to keep up that tradition," said Kevin King in a 1989 interview. "For instance, we still do the family style chicken and eight vegetables that they’ve always done. And we’ve added a few meats for those who don’t like chicken."

Family-style meals were offered each evening and for lunch on Sunday. "You can choose either fried chicken, fried cod or ham," said King. “Or you can have a 12-ounce strip sirloin. But you don’t get 'all-you-can-eat' of the steak. We couldn’t afford to do that."

"We’ve found that a lot of people just come for all the vegetables," King said. "But they also like the chicken. In fact, 90 percent of our customers order the fried chicken, and the majority get the white meat."

Diners were seated at long tables at Big Boy’s. "That’s another of the traditions," King explained. "Even if there are only two in your party, we sit you at one of the long tables to give you the feeling that you’re at a dining table in a large family."

Kevin King and his mother Sally Big Boy's Menu (click to enlarge)
Big Boy's Family Style Fried Chicken
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 3, 1989
Big Boy's A La Carte Menu
(click image to enlarge)

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State investigators walked into Big Boy's after the busy lunchtime period on April 20, 2005, flashed their badges and asked to speak to the restaurant's operator, Kevin King. After talking with the investigators, King told employees that the restaurant was closed. The investigators stayed long enough to let the customers already there finish their meals.

"We are closed temporarily," said a paper sign taped on the restaurant’s front door. "Please accept our apology for any inconvenience."

The state said the restaurant owed more than $30,000 in sales tax. Longtime workers at the restaurant said they doubted the interstate landmark would open again. They were correct. Two unsuccessful attempts were made to get the restaurant on the National Register of Historic Places.

Big Boy's Restaurant was shuttered in April of 2005.
In 2006, a year after the restaurant closed, Big Boy's dining room looked ready to use.

In January of 2011, Wright City purchased the 2.5 acre site for $170,000 and started moving toward demolition. The mayor said the city was considering using the property for a new city hall and police department. In June of 2011, the city opened the restaurant to sell the contents, including the long wooden tables and chairs.

But the iconic outdoor sign depicting a smiling buck-toothed man, wearing a gray tuxedo and holding a platter of chicken was not among the memorabilia. Officials said it had been gone for several years, and they weren't sure what happened to it.

Big Boy's Sign at
East End of Building
Big Boy's Sign from West End of Building
Neon Time Shop, St. Charles

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