Restaurant operator profile: Frisch’s Big Boy

The customer experience is still at the heart of Frisch’s Big Boy, almost 80 years after launch. Amelia Levin tracks the story behind a brand that appeals to different demographics

If you’ve ever been to Cincinnati, you’ve likely had five-way (or three- or four-way, if you prefer) chili. You know, the big bowl of spaghetti loaded up with a semi-sweet and savory, cinnamon-chocolate-spiked chili and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, chopped raw white onions and/or beans.

While Skyline Chili is most famously known for first serving this staple, Cincinnati locals and visitors have also been flocking to Frisch’s Big Boy for their fix – referred to as “chili spaghetti” on the menu and served with Frisch’s Texas toast – for 76 years. The regional chain isn’t just known for this core dish; other signature dishes include fresh-griddled Big Boy burgers topped with Frisch’s tartar sauce, breakfast bar and famous hot fudge cake (circa 1970).

“Fewer and fewer restaurant brands today have the kind of legacy that Frisch’s Big Boy has,” says chief executive officer James Walker, a veteran restaurant executive who has held leadership positions with Nathan’s Famous, Subway, Baja Fresh and Cinnabon. He joined the chain in August 2022.

“The people of Cincinnati and surrounding areas have an emotional connection with this brand. My ultimate goal is to guide us in leveraging our brand equity.”

A family-friendly, kid-friendly restaurant that’s also a favorite among senior diners, Frisch’s has been seeing a growth at its restaurants during a time when inflation prices continue to rise. “With everything going on in the economy, we are very focused on providing a reasonably priced meal for our customers and fans of Frisch’s,” Walker says. “I believe we have been very successful over the past year at finding ways to provide high-quality, fresh meals to our customers, but doing so at a price that allows them to come to us more often.”

The Frisch’s story

The ninth of ten children, Dave Frisch worked full-time as a teenager at his father Samuel’s restaurant, Frisch’s Stag Lunch, which he took over after his father passed away. In the 1930s, Dave went out on his own, and by 1939, he opened the Mainliner restaurant, Cincinnati’s first year-round drive-in named after the first trimotor passenger airplane.

In 1946, at an industry convention in California, Frisch met Bob Wian who introduced him to a doubledecker hamburger called the ‘Big Boy.’ After securing permission to adopt the concept, Frisch personalized the signature burger by dressing it with a homemade tartar sauce and putting it on his menu at the Mainliner. The burger became an instant hit – so much so that Frisch built an entire concept around it, opening the first Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant in 1947 in Cincinnati.

The downtown drive-in location had room for eight customers inside and sixty cars outside reflective of the many car hops during that time. Over the next three decades the Big Boy concept grew steadily throughout the Midwest and the South.

Under Dave Frisch’s leadership, the company grew to 200 units. When he passed away in 1970, Dave Frisch’s $30m company passed to his son-in law and grandson. In 2001, after many years as a Big Boy franchisee, Frisch’s became the exclusive owner of the Big Boy trademark in Indiana, Kentucky, and most of Ohio and Tennessee and is not affiliated with Big Boy Restaurant Group. In 2015, the company was sold to NRD Capital, and equity fund. The company currently operates 78 corporate locations and a little over two dozen franchised locations throughout the region, according to Walker.

Design and décor

With his striped overalls and reddish-blond hair, the Big Boy character, also known as the East Coast Big Boy, remains a constant at Frisch’s Big Boy restaurants. To this day, the friendly-faced statue continues to greet guests at the front entrance of Frisch’s with a huge smile while holding a Big Boy double-decker hamburger.

“It’s not unusual to see guests taking their picture in front of the statue,” says Walker. Inside, Frisch’s restaurants vary in size, give or take about 4,000-square-feet. The restaurant’s signature Breakfast Bar – a Frisch’s original since the ’80s – serves as the focal point of the dining room, set up with warming wells holding eggs, French toast, pancakes, bacon, biscuits and more under heat lamps. Come lunch and dinnertime, that bar flips into a soup and salad bar.

The kitchen is divided between a cookline and kitchen prep area with a battery of equipment that includes mostly grills, ranges and fryers as well as a prep sink, walk-in cooler and freezer, commercial dishwasher and dry storage. A core piece is the clamshell grill, “which provides a nice consistency and speed of service for the burgers,” says Walker.

Commissary kitchen

Many of Frisch’s signature sauces, dressings and other products, however, are prepared and cooked at the 87,000-square-foot commissary kitchen, which opened in 1961 in Cincinnati.

In addition to the Big Boy burgers and Cincinnati chili, other items like hand-breaded onion rings, house-made pies and desserts and fresh baked biscuits are prepared in the commissary daily and delivered out to the restaurant locations.

“The fact that we have a lot of restaurants in a tight geography and a commissary allows us to make many items from scratch at a high level of efficiency such that we can pass those savings to our customers,” says Walker, who notes that it has helped keep menu prices down, even with rising inflation rates.

The commissary consists of four separate production areas: Produce processing, bakery, USDA inspected meat processing and USDA inspected soup processing (where the chili, dressings, tartare and other sauces are also prepared).

Some of the equipment in the commissary include meat grinders and burger patty formers, high-speed slicers and choppers, gas-fire ovens and kettles, cooling tanks, pie construction supplies, food process pumps, industrial mixtures and a battery of packaging equipment.

As far back as 1960, Frisch’s began selling its tartar sauce for home cooks, introducing the product to retail market shelves in 1993 and a spicier version in 2019.

“People come into Frisch’s for Big Boy burgers and hot fudge cake; but more often than not they leave with our signature tartar sauce,” Walker says.


The first Frisch’s drive-thru location opened in Hartwell, Ohio, in 1983. Since then, all locations have been updated or built to include a drive-thru. “It’s unique for a full-service, casual dining restaurant to also have a drive-thru, but it’s a core part of Frisch’s business, and it was very beneficial to have during the pandemic,” Walker says. An estimated 35% of sales come from the drive-thru, compared to 60% in-house and 5% delivery.

Each Frisch’s restaurant has a separate drive-thru area with its own ordering monitor and prep/ production area. Delivery orders are also handled in this area.

“Delivery is a growing area for us and a focus for the past couple of years,” Walker says, noting a recent partnership with Franklin Junction, a third-party delivery platform solution provider. “We currently offer delivery through Door Dash and Uber Eats and Franklin helps us optimize those orders and sales.”

Because of Frisch’s history operating drive-thrus, the brand has long invested in proper packaging and best practices to make sure food stays fresh and hot when delivered.

“Because Frisch’s has drive-thru, packaging is something we’re really good at and a requirement to execute a successful drive-thru program in the first place,” he says.

CVG Airport outpost

Some Frisch’s locations have been renovated and remodeled over the years, but the most recent news is the opening of a Frisch’s outpost at CVG (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky) Airport location.

This is Frisch’s second smaller outpost; the company opened a Frisch’s food stand at the Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, in 2013. Offering a condensed menu, the 1,595-square-foot CVG location also features a sleek and compact design by Propaganda, Inc., with 10 tables and five counter seats. Key pieces of equipment for this location include a flat-top grill, fryers, stand-up coolers and freezers and a milk shake machine.

“The team did a great job taking the historical, iconic look of Frisch’s and bringing it into a modern aesthetic,” Walker says.

Looking ahead, Walker says company leaders are exploring some equipment and technology upgrades. But above all, value, convenience and consistency remain the key goals for the brand. “We remain steadfast on the customer experience – great food quality and great value,” he says. “We’re focused on executing on that brand promise and doing so at a price point that’s affordable to all.”

Amelia Levin