(Writer’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories that will concentrate on the history of one of the most storied restaurant franchises in Wheeling since the 1950s.)
There were nine mandatory service steps. There was a recipe Bible. There was only one way to cook it and only one way to serve it.
It was a true empire that Boury Enterprises became by the mid-1970s, and it all began with a circus lion tamer from Beirut, Lebanon, who immigrated to the United States, got married, opened a confectionary on Main Street in 1912, and fathered three boys who would change the face of Wheeling for decades.
George, Ellis, and Mike Boury assisted with the transition of their father’s business as the Friendly City changed following World War II into an industrial and residential region more so than a stay-over service community for those heading to the land west of the Ohio River. Taverns with limited food options soon became eateries that served alcohol, so the brothers grew Michael Sr.’s business into a restaurant supply and service company which was still located in downtown Wheeling.
And then in 1956, Wheeling residents met the Big Boy along the same National Road their father traveled to settle there, and over the next three decades citizens in West Virginia, East Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and Maryland would experience what Elby’s Family Restaurant had evolved into since young ladies started roller skating through the parking lot of “No. 1.”
That very first Elby’s was small, but expansions soon took place for more seating and takeout service once Interstate 70 finally flowed through Wheeling Tunnel and over the Fort Henry Bridge, a span that was ready a little more than 10 years before the tunnel was completed. The goal was always fine food and friendly and fast service in an attractive atmosphere, and success of the Big Boy sandwich, a double-decker, two-burger, special-sauce and other-stuff delight, the fried chicken – with no wings included – the Brawny Swiss and Brawny Lad, the Slim Jim, the Fish & Chips, the Half-Pound O’Ground Round, and the desserts (Remember the Hot Fudge Cake and Strawberry Pie?) soon allowed the brothers to open a second, then a third, and a fourth, and fifth and on and on and on.
The empire included quite the diversified number of holding companies, as well as TriAD, a billboard company, and also the Hallmark-approved Gift Shops and Factory Glass Outlets. But it was Elby’s Family Restaurants, of course, that swelled the company’s coffers, allowing George, Mike, and Ellis to open a final total of 73 restaurants, hotels in Wheeling and in State College, Pa., Elmo’s Good Times Food at the Ohio Valley Mall, and first Fabulous Fanny’s, and then the Riverside Restaurant inside the former Best Western Wheeling Inn on the corner of 10th and Main streets. In 1978, Boury Enterprises employed more than 2,500.
How it happened, all of it, and the reasons why it went away more than 20 years ago will be revealed in this series of upcoming articles with the tales told by storytellers who were once busboys, hostesses, waiters, and waitresses, the short-order cooks, the managers, the ladies who floured the fish and those onion rings, and the children and relatives of those pioneers.
The rise and fall, the rumor mill, those nine steps, the recipes, and the one way to operate an Elby’s Family Restaurant are the tales that need to be told, and they will be.
The Son of George
Prior to the opening of the first Elby’s, George Boury acquired land in a housing development dubbed Hawthorne Court, a few-street area boasting huge houses with pools and tennis courts, security systems, servants, and sports cars in the driveway.
George and his first wife built a house there and moved in the same year Elby’s Big Boy opened, and they soon had a second son. Their first was Michael III.
“I was told three things about 1956,” said Gregg Boury, son of George Boury. “Three big things happened in 1956. The first, Elby’s opened on National Road in Wheeling. Second, we moved into our house on Hawthorne Court. And third, I was born.
“But prior to all of that, somehow, my dad became aware of Bob Wian in California. He had invented the Big Boy sandwich, and my dad always had an infatuation with the food process,” he continued. “It amazed him for whatever reason to take a raw product and make it into a meal to put on someone’s table. And for whatever reason he loved to go to White Castle and watch them go about what they did, and I think he could have watched it for hours.”
“So he was infatuated with the ‘food factory’ concept, so to speak, but it was something that was part of him, and the Big Boy had caught his attention. He stuck with it, saw it through, and saw it become a reality here in Wheeling,” said Boury. “My recollection was that he was relentless about that process in the restaurants, and he and his brothers made it happen here, and it was here for a lot of years.”
Gregg’s involvement with the restaurant spanned all levels of operation, and it was not because his father forced him to begin his career at the bottom and work his own way up the corporate ladder. That training process, in fact, was already in place for any employee seeking to enter the company’s ranks of management.
“Well, my dad didn’t necessarily ascend me in the right way, and that’s because sometimes when you have a kid, you do not see some things very clearly,” Gregg said. “At one point he took me into the offices here in downtown and just told me to follow him around. and I really hated that. And I always hated wearing a tie, but he said that was part of it, too, so that’s what I did.
“Finally, I think he realized that we were going to kill each other if he didn’t get me out of that situation, so he finally put me into the management-training program, and that’s where I should have been in the first place,” he continued. “And part of that program was to wash the dishes, to wait on the tables, and to do the food prep and the cooking, and I enjoyed all of it except working with the onions for the onion rings. I really didn’t like going home smelling like that.”
Once he completed the prescribed training, Gregg’s career followed the path of growth realized by Elby’s Big Boy, a combination of a regional and a national “brand” that worked well although no one really knew what a marketing “brand” was at the time.
“I managed a couple of different restaurants until they gave me a new opening in Dublin, Ohio, and I was there for a while, but then I really started moving around a good bit to different restaurants,” Gregg recalled. “I managed in Heath, Ohio, in Columbus, Washington, Pa., here in Wheeling, in St. Clairsville, and at a lot of other locations I’m not recalling right now.
“And I did enjoy it, and everything I hear about it today is positive because so many people have so many wonderful memories of eating at an Elby’s or working at one,” he said. “Or they’ve run in the race or remember the floats, or they just remember great experiences that they miss even today.”
Elby’s quickly became known in each community as the place where Santa Claus would be outside the front door in December and as the only Wheeling restaurant that would send coupons for free Big Boys to every town’s little leaguers, enter first-class floats in holiday-related parades, and start an event that would become an international, Olympic-sanctioned showcase called the Elby’s Distance Race.
The quality of every single one of the menu items was the very first founding principle and was consistently most important to the brothers. That fact makes the next piece of evidence perhaps the most ironic bit of historical information, and it involves why Elby’s was called Elby’s in the first place.
“It wasn’t all about naming it after my Uncle Ellis even though that makes the most sense to people because of the possible combination,” Gregg said. “The story that I was told by my dad was that they were sitting around a desk one day trying to come up with a name for the restaurant, and they were making all kinds of combinations with their names, and Ellis Boury did come up. But it just so happened that they had a bottle of simple syrup there that they sold to bars because it was a lot of what grenadine is today.
“The company that made that was called Elby’s, and one of them noticed it and thought it would be a great name, and because it was one of the combinations, that’s what they went with,” he said. “I don’t know if Elby’s would have been the name of it if that bottle of simple syrup had not been on that desk at the time of that particular conversation.”
Each Boury brother owned roles in this operation, and it was Mike who was in charge of the food side, Ellis who was in charge of business and negotiations, and George was the business’ bling. He was the empire’s front man from the beginning, the brother who craved the spotlight but shielded it when it was not a positive limelight. No matter what, George Boury forever sought perfection in everything he attempted.
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“One story about my father’s perfectionism is the day he decided he was going to make White Castle burgers at home. He had all of the ingredients, and he even had the diced onions because he knew to put those onions on the burger so that onion flavor would cook into the meat. He also knew to put the bun on top of the onions so the onion flavor would steam up through the bun,” Gregg recalled. “And he decided that if he was going to make those little meat patties, he needed to ice his hands down so the heat from his hands wouldn’t begin to turn the meat. He would submerge is hands into ice water, and then he would make a patty for the burgers, and we were all howling at him because it seemed so funny.
“But it was just him doing something the right way as he perceived the right way, and it had to be done that way,” he continued. “Elby’s was already open at that time but that example really speaks to how my father was when it came to the food process. There was no other way other than the right way.”
The Big Boy Bubble Burst
Mike Boury directed traffic at three different commissaries during Elby’s history, the first in downtown, the second on 19th St. in East Wheeling next to Carenbauer Distributing, and the final facility in the enormous structure in Martins Ferry that now houses Stoney Hollow Tire. Uncle Ellis, his nephew said, was the businessman who helped orchestrate those moves but also the brother who often found himself in a peacemaking role.
“The one thing that I remember very specifically about my Uncle Mike was his ability to crunch numbers in his head. He could take a sandwich with multiple ingredients and break it down to how much it cost per ounce,” Gregg recalled. “He could walk into any restaurant and tell you what their food costs are, and to be able to do that math in his head was just amazing.
“My Uncle Ellis was the more human person in that group of brothers. He was like the buffer between my Uncle Mike and my dad until all three of them started going at each other’s throats at the end,” he continued. “Anytime your financial situation starts to go south, that happens. They were blaming my dad. My dad was blaming them. They were blaming (company general manager) Tom Johnson and everyone else they could think of. It was a real mess.”
But glory of growth came first. Not only did the brothers open new restaurants and gift shops in four different states, but they also constructed and opened a new headquarters at 1233 Main Street adjacent to Boury Inc. in 1986. Until The Health Plan constructs its new corporate headquarters within the 1100 block, the former Boury Center will stand as the last new building erected in the downtown district since 1985.
The office building is now named Century Plaza, and the structure that housed the restaurant supply/appliance store now is home to DiCarlo’s Pizza. The American economy slipped and tripped at exactly the wrong time for these brothers and thus changed the attitudes of officials in the banking industry. The continued addition of restaurants was an integral part of the Boury Enterprises business plan, but bank policy changes cut off the Boury’s’ credit line.
Panic set in.
“When I get asked about why the restaurants closed, I tell them the truth. It’s documented history,” Gregg said. “There was not one particular thing that happened that forced the sale of the company, but there were a lot of things that played into that decision to sell it. One of the business mistakes that was made was the fact that all of the properties were sale-lease properties, and that required a lot of cash flow. Banks suddenly adopted the policy that the restaurants were a bad deal, and after that they would no longer finance anything.
“Without the new restaurants and the new credit lines, all three of them found themselves in a heck of a financial pinch, so they had to find someone out there,” he continued. “They could have continued on had they gone public, but my dad did not want to give up control, and yes, ego was part of the demise. He did not want to answer to a board of directors because of what he had seen happen with other companies that had gone public for that very reason. I know he feared that, all of a sudden, it wouldn’t be about what my dad and his brothers had made Elby’s to be.”
Just a few years after opening the Boury Center, Elby’s was sold to the Elias Bros. Corp. out of Warren, Mich., and the Big Boy brand covered Elby’s in every respect all the way down changing the, “Elby’s Distance Race” to the, “Big Boy Classic.”
“Quite frankly, Elias Brothers was the only company out there willing to buy the chain,” Gregg said. “That’s why they sold it to them, and at a considerable loss, of course, but by doing so, they set the demise in motion because Elias Brothers wasn’t doing the same thing that the brothers were doing.
“When I went to Detroit to see the operations of the company, it was all very impressive, but when you tasted their food, it was garbage. My Uncle Mike was absolutely relentless and particular about our food, and he was not happy. But the situation was what it was, and they made the decisions they made.”
Many of the former Elby’s locations still stand today in St. Clairsville, Cambridge, Moundsville, downtown Wheeling, New Martinsville, Pittsburgh, and Marietta. While Perkins Restaurant thrives in Elby’s original location, the Big Boy in Weirton still rests along Freedom Way intact but abandoned and eroding.
The remnants of the legend are something Gregg Boury has made a conscious effort to ignore since the late-80s sale.
“When they decided to sell the chain to Elias Brothers, whatever happened after that was not part of my life any longer,” Gregg said candidly. “I really drew the line there, and that’s the way I deal with it.
“I know there are restaurants out there that try to copy what we used to serve as Elby’s, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they try to do that. I think, eventually, those recipes will die a slow death because of how the trend of nutrition is going now, but we still have many of the older people who are still around who like to remember those things, and if they can get a taste of it, that’s what they do.”
He remained in business with his father for several years after the Big Boy restaurants shuttered their doors because of the disliked tastes, experiences, and the pricing, but the Best Western Wheeling Inn and the Riverside Restaurant were not included in the sell-off. These days he finds himself in the middle of efforts involved with improving quality-of-life issues in Wheeling. One prime example is the fact he is one of the lead organizers working to make the Fitzsimmons Family Dog Park a reality by the end of this year.
“And after all of that my wife and I opened a chain of fitness centers and had those for a little more than 10 years,” Gregg explained. “I’ve also done some consulting for a few restaurants outside of this area, and I also worked for the city’s Water Department for a short time.
“These days I am enjoying doing what it is I want to do, and the dog park is a no-brainer in my mind,” he said. “Wheeling is a great city, and it always has been. We have a lot here that a lot of people take for granted, but if they stop and think about it, they’ll realize it, too.”
His father was the flamboyant brother, and Gregg Boury grew up within it. Speedboats, beach villas, Cadillacs, telephones in every room of his house, a backyard pool, and a level of celebrity while living as the first son of one of the founding fathers, he admits, had its advantages.
“Free food, and I could take my friends,” he said quickly after asked the question. “That was just very cool to grow up with. That was my favorite part when I was a kid, but then later I really loved working in the restaurant industry, and I really enjoyed the fact that we always had great food that people really loved. We ran an operation that we could be proud of.
“It was a great place to work, and that was because everyone worked as a team,” Boury continued. “But the worst part was toward the end when there was a lot of in-fighting. No one was getting along, and the brothers were fighting, too. The absolute worst part was when I had to travel to Columbus with some others, and we had to tell the people in 12 restaurants that we were shutting them down. That was just horrible.”
There wasn’t a federal bailout available to the Boury brothers, and the decision to liquidate was made. They sold a dynasty they constructed from their father’s scratches, and then they had to walk away from it, then drive by it, and then George, Mike, and Ellis were forced to watch as the those letters – E-L-B-Y’s – were removed.
Michael, in 2006, was the first brother to pass away, and George followed in June 2009. Ellis, father of nine children, died in May 2013.
“It all happened. Yes it did,” Gregg Boury said. “And it was great, but then it wasn’t, and it’s a story that should be told. To this day I’m not sure why my dad and his brothers, my uncles, aren’t in the Wheeling Hall of Fame, but I guess those people decided to focus on the negatives instead of the many positives they gave this city over the years.
“That’s why this story needs to be told.”
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