A Journey Through Time: Bismarck Big Boy

6 mins read

Est. 1954

Big Boy has been a staple in the Bismarck-Mandan community since its early days, opening in 1954. Over the years, Big Boy in Bismarck has become a local favorite, blending classic tastes with unforgettable memories. Like the mighty Missouri River that flows through Bismarck, Big Boy has witnessed the ebb and flow of the city’s history, becoming an integral part of the community’s fabric. It’s more than just a restaurant; it’s a part of Bismarck’s history. 

I had the pleasure of connecting with some of the team behind Bismarck’s Big Boy, including Don Brandt, Bismarck’s Big Boy Manager, who’s celebrating 40 incredible years with Big Boy this February. We discussed the business’s early history, some of the most memorable milestones for the restaurant over the past seven decades, and what’s next for Big Boy in Bismarck.

The Origins of Big Boy: A Dream Realized

The Big Boy story in Bismarck began with Harley McDowell’s vision. After experiencing a Big Boy restaurant on a business trip, McDowell was inspired to bring this unique dining concept back to Bismarck. His entrepreneurial spirit didn’t stop there; he also became the fourth franchisee of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in the same year, ultimately forming a close friendship with “Colonel” Harland Sanders.

McDowell’s legacy was carried forward by Stan and Bonnie Rothenberger, who purchased Big Boy in 1978. McDowell, impressed by the Rothenbergers reputation for honest business and quality food service, chose them over other higher bidders.

Did You Know?

Other regional locations of Big Boy once also existed in downtown Bismarck, Fargo, Minot, Dickinson, and Medora, but the original Bismarck restaurant remains the sole survivor today.

Big Boy Today

Fast forward to 2017, Chad Wachter, a lifelong resident and fan of Big Boy, took over the reins. Since Wachter transitioned to ownership, the restaurant has seen several improvements, such as a more navigable menu board, an additional drive-through exit, and outdoor picnic benches for summer dining. “There is no reason to mess with perfection. We are proud to be part of many memories that center around family and food,” Wachter said.

Big Boy’s distinctiveness is not just in its menu, but also in its format. As Andersen points out, Big Boy in Bismarck is unique for being the only establishment in the chain with a drive-thru and no indoor seating, offering fried chicken exclusively at the Bismarck location—a nod to McDowell’s association with KFC.

Did You Know?

Bismarck’s Big Boy was the first drive-through restaurant in Bismarck-Mandan!

Continuing the Legacy: A Blend of Old and New

Don Brandt, the current manager of Big Boy, emphasizes the importance of consistency and tradition. “The menu hasn’t changed over the years,” Brandt said. “We have added some items, but the original ones are still there. Grandparents can treat their grandkids to a hot & tot that they themselves enjoyed as children.”

But Big Boy isn’t just about food; it’s about the experience and the nostalgia it evokes. “It’s more about the nostalgia of home than the idea of visiting,” Brandt said. “Everyone who grew up here has some memory of Big Boy, from parents bringing their kids to Big Boy for a treat, or out-of-town customers coming to get pizza burgers. Customers often order frozen burgers to take back home with them. As out-of-towners oftentimes come back to visit family, they often leave the airport and come through our line, joking with us that they come to see us before family.”

Memorable Milestones: Celebrating the Community Spirit

Big Boy’s journey is dotted with memorable moments that mirror the community’s own story. From celebrating its 65th anniversary with a $0.65 pizza burger special to catering past events for governors, Big Boy has been an active participant in Bismarck’s social landscape. Brandt recalls the area’s flood as a particularly challenging yet defining moment, highlighting the community’s reliance on and support for Big Boy during tough times.

“The flood around 2010 was a very memorable time for everyone,” Brandt said. “Big Boy was in high demand because we are a restaurant where you can pick up large amounts of food. Besides being very short-staffed, the line would extend far down Main Street. Customers were encouraged to call with their large orders of burgers when arriving at the back of the line so that by the time they were at the front, the staff would have a head start on the food.”

"The Big Boy statue used to be stolen all the time as a 'Senior Prank.' They would  come to work and find the statue had been stolen, and later it would be found in front of Bismarck high school."

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own set of challenges and opportunities. “The second everything shut down, our business increased,” Brandt said. “The employees all put in many hours as there wasn’t much else to do at the time, and our line was nonstop. Everyone had a good attitude as schools and everything else had shut down, so it gave many of our high school staff members a chance to get out and be around people.” This further highlights how Big Boy became a hub for the community during these uncertain times.

A Community Icon: More Than Just Food

Big Boy has become a community icon and a place where generations of families have created lasting memories. Don Brandt shares heartwarming stories of customers who reminisce about their life events, from proposals to teenage hangouts in the parking lot, emphasizing that Big Boy is a part of the community’s collective memory.

“Customers often come through the line and reminisce about their own memories, such as proposals, and hanging out in the parking lot as teenagers. You can nightly still find teenagers in our parking lot,” Brandt said.

This deep-rooted connection is further evidenced by Big Boy’s involvement in local events. The restaurant’s participation in the 4th of July parade, with staff members and the iconic Big Boy mascot distributing free drink coupons, as well as catering for local events, including notable figures and celebrations, further cement Big Boy’s role as a community leader and gatherer.

To increase its community outreach, Bismarck’s Big Boy also occasionally operates out of a traveling food truck. “Our first food truck event in Fargo had our highest sales up to that date out of our food truck,” Brandt said. “People waited for over an hour to get pizza burgers, fries, and gravy when the line wrapped around the corner and down the block. Every time our food truck pulls into any town, it’s like the circus has come. Kids wave at us like we’re famous, and people line up long before we’re even open and serving.

The Road Ahead: Future Aspirations and Challenges

Moreover, adapting to new technology, such as delivery and mobile ordering, is on the horizon for Big Boy. Keeping pace with the latest and greatest dining trends while holding on to its traditional roots will be a delicate balance to strike for Big Boy in the coming years.

Looking to the future, Big Boy in Bismarck has plans for expansion and modernization. Brandt discussed the potential of opening another Big Boy in key North Dakota cities such as Fargo, Jamestown, Dickinson, and Minot, as well as enhancing their presence through consistent food truck visits.

However, with expansion comes the challenge of preserving the authenticity of Big Boy’s offerings. “Being able to keep the traditions and flavors of Big Boy true to what they have always been is important to us,” Brandt said. “Many hours are spent making sure that new products have the same flavor profile as the old.”

The restaurant’s focus on customer satisfaction is evident in the way it addresses feedback and concerns. “Our most important job has always been making sure our recipes stay the same, and our customers are happy,” Brandt said. “We spend many hours every year looking into every customer complaint and every menu item flavor profile to ensure the consistency we have always had,” Brandt said. This attention to detail and commitment to excellence have helped Big Boy maintain its reputation as a beloved eatery. 

From Harley McDowell’s initial vision to the current stewardship under Chad Wachter, Big Boy has navigated the challenges of time while maintaining its core values. As Wachter, Brandt, and the rest of the Big Boy team continue their journey, it remains a cherished part of Bismarck’s culinary and cultural heritage, a place where every meal is a slice of history served with a side of memories.

As we wrap up our journey through the storied streets of Bismarck-Mandan, it’s hard not to feel a deep connection with these time-honored businesses. Each one tells a story of endurance, adaptability, and a warm, unwavering spirit that’s just so classically us. They remind us, in their own quiet way, that amidst the whirlwind of rotating businesses, the truest forms of dedication, top-notch quality, and heartfelt service to our neighbors never go out of style.

Big Boy

Instagram | @bismarck_big_boy
Facebook | /BismarckBigBoy
2511 E Main Ave
Bismarck, ND 58501