Traverse City franchise owner retires after 40 years

Danielle Woodward
Associated Press
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Traverse City — As Mark Hamlyn sips coffee from a booth inside the Big Boy restaurant at 3828 U.S. 31, he is greeted warmly by customers and staff alike.

Hamlyn, 68, ran the local franchise for 40 years. During that time, customers became regulars and staff — many who’ve worked there for decades — became family. That made his recent last day at work an emotional one, after Hamlyn decided to retire and sell his franchise to Big Boy’s corporate office.

“He was really excited to retire at first, but the last week or so before they took over, he started to get sad,” said Debbie Blonshine, who waitressed under Hamlyn at Big Boy for 35 years.

Hamlyn, whose last day at Big Boy was Dec. 1, knew it was time to retire as he neared the end of his franchise agreement, set to expire in July. He opened the Traverse City Big Boy with his uncle and cousin in 1977, and had run it by himself since 2000.

“I enjoyed it, and I’d enjoy doing it for another five years, but it’s time,” he said. “This is really a young person’s business.”

When Big Boy Restaurants International LLC agreed last spring to buy the franchise from Hamlyn, both felt a winter transition would be easier on employees, he said. The takeover was set for Dec. 1, but Hamlyn never found himself counting down to his retirement, the Traverse City Record Eagle reported.

“I’ve never, ever gotten up in the morning and not been excited to go to work,” he said. “I like the customers, and I’m really thankful for all the employees. They really made it what it is.”

The feeling was mutual among his staff, who collectively presented Hamlyn with parting gifts — a model airplane for him, gift certificates to the movies to share with his wife — on an emotional last day of work. Many of them, Blonshine said, considered him a mentor.

“He generally cares about us and what happens in our lives,” she said. “I’ll miss that one-on-one personalization. It’s going to be different not having Mark around.”

Longtime Big Boy employees like Nicole Warner, who has been a waitress at the franchise for 28 years, considered Hamlyn a friend as well a boss.

“He’s always been so down-to-earth and understanding,” she said. “He worked so good with everyone, and we have such a good team. I think that’s why I’ve stuck around for so long.”

It’s exactly the atmosphere Hamlyn has strived to create since one customer told him long ago that the familiar staff was what kept him coming back to the restaurant.

“A little light bulb went on, and my job from that moment on was to hire good people and do whatever it takes to keep them,” Hamlyn said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want you to be here for six months, I want you to be here a long time.”

Hamlyn said he does that by offering competitive pay and benefits with paid vacation, making flexible work schedules and being fair and honest with his employees.

“We take care of each other,” he said. “We all know we have a job to do, and we try to have fun and get through it the best way we can.”

Hamlyn left Big Boy in the capable hands of his 55 employees, who all remain employed at the franchise through the ownership transition, he said. But that hasn’t stopped him from making several post-retirement visits to the restaurant.

“He isn’t just going to walk away from us,” Blonshine laughed. “I don’t think he can.”

If nothing else, Hamlyn will visit the restaurant for his weekly food fix.

Hamlyn eats his favorite dish, the Big Boy Sandwich, two or three times a week, a tradition he plans to continue into retirement.

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