Metro Detroiters reminisce on Big Boy’s last day

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — They shuffled up to the salad bar — some adorned in Easter finery, others sporting shorts and T-shirts — and filled their plates for one last Sunday meal at a longtime gathering spot that’s destined for the wrecking ball.

Nicole Chatman, 33, of Harrison Township poses with the Big Boy while Tariq Ali, 38, of Detroit takes a photo at the Big Boy restaurant on East Jefferson in Detroit on Sunday. Chatman grew up not far from the Big Boy and came there often over the years.

Outside the Big Boy restaurant on East Jefferson near Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge on Sunday others posed for pictures with the iconic statue of the restaurant chain’s chubby, smiling mascot. The marquee beneath a similar Big Boy statue bears the message: “Thank you for 50 years.”

“The city is changing,” said Marchenette Brown, 77, who lives a few blocks away from the Big Boy, and has been a customer since the restaurant opened in 1967. “Some of the change is good, some of it’s bad. This is the bad part.”

Detroit’s last Big Boy restaurant was scheduled to close at 5 p.m. Sunday, after a development group The Platform announced last month it had bought the property at East Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard. The new owners told The Detroit News the site may become a temporary farmer’s market and food truck court.

That stretch of Jefferson, featuring the waterfront to the south and a hodgepodge of fast food restaurants, coffee shops, empty lots and storefronts to the north, is slated for redevelopment. The Platform told The News it will buy five nearby parcels to be converted into residential units. The developer also plans to build retail and residential units on some of area’s empty lots.

“I’ve been telling everyone all day: ‘Just stay away from me and don’t talk to me, because I don’t want to cry just yet. At 5:00, I’ll cry,’” Big Boy server Tara McIntosh said Sunday. On the last day of the restaurants operations she gave out hugs including to regular customer Willie Tyson Jr.

For customers the change is bittersweet.

“I really hate to see this place go,” Brown said. “My family and friends have been coming here for birthdays and memorials. It’s a sad thing to me. I just wanted to come on the last day and reminisce.”

While the Big Boy restaurant isn’t quite as iconic as other razed Detroit institutions like the former J.L. Hudson’s store on Woodward, the diner holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of Metro Detroiters, including Mary Lloyd, 70, of Highland Park. The restaurant served three generations of her family since she started eating there in the 1970s.

“I saw the news (about the restaurant closing) last night, and decided to have one last breakfast,” she said over a plate of sausage, eggs and chicken. “I studied here ... I took my kids and grandkids here. People got to know me, and I got to know them. A lot of the waitresses have been here a long time.

“It’s kind of sad, but we’ve been waiting for this change in Detroit for a long time, and it’s coming to fruition,” Lloyd said. “You miss what’s going away, but you can’t help anticipating what’s coming.”

Restaurant management told The News employees will get a bonus and help finding jobs at other Big Boys.

Angela Swilling, 47, of Detroit, said she’s made a lot of friends in the 20 years she’s worked at the restaurant. “You get a chance to meet some great people,” she said. “We’ve been shedding tears the last few weeks since we found out it was closing.”

Added server Tara McIntosh, who has worked at the restaurant for four years: “I’ve been telling everyone all day: ‘Just stay away from me and don’t talk to me, because I don’t want to cry just yet. At 5:00, I’ll cry.’ ”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN