(Writer’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of stories that will concentrate on the history of one of the most storied restaurant franchises in Wheeling since the 1950s.)
My Elby’s and I
It was a small office my father filled tucked away at the end of something of a cubicle city filled with the counters of the cash. That’s what my dad did for Elby’s Family Restaurants and Boury Enterprises. He counted everything, but he did have a riverfront view along Water Street in downtown Wheeling.
My father, Ed Novotney, grew up one of two sons of the owner of a popular dry goods store on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and he assisted his single-mom mother with accounting for the revenue and the inventory, and he would later do the same after enrolling in the U.S. Army Reserve and while working for Hamburg Bros. in Altoona first and then here in Wheeling for 20 years.
When my parents split up the kids on Saturdays, I was consistently with my dad for some kind of sports practice or games, or he took me along to his workplace, and he usually put me to work, too. The first task I can recall involved the plastic poker chips the Boury brothers sent every Little Leaguer whose coach mailed in a roster with home addresses included. As soon as the decision was made to send letters instead, the brothers ordered the destruction of the chips, and I was the kid with the hammer and a vice grip that made it happen three free Big Boys at a time.
In the late 1970s, I became the master shredder of 20-year-old records, and that became a regular Saturday gig because before computers all records were in ledgers and via miscellaneous accounting methods. But it was all on paper, and mostly handwritten, but once the two-decade bell tolled it landed in my pile for destruction.
And then I was a busboy, and then a bow-tied waiter during my high school and college years. When a busload of Festival of Lights fans would surprise us, I often jumped behind the short-order line to the Big Boys, Brawny Lads and Slim Jims, one of after another, until we were out of the weeds.
The “Elby’s Way” was a service system I would later utilize while working as a waiter in Pittsburgh and Annapolis but through the years the nine steps mandated by the Elby’s training manuals combined in my mind because the main message the Bourys wanted their servers to convey was that customer was the focus of my attention. “I’ll be with you in just a minute” to “What would everyone like to drink this evening?” to “Would you like that to make that a platter so you can enjoy our fries and cole slaw?” to “How about a piece of strawberry pie?”
How good were the tips? Keep in mind we’re talking about the 1980s and early 1990s, so if I walked out with $30 a post-work visit to Woodsie’s or the Swing Club seemed to make sense despite the fact I reeked like, well, a Big Boy and onion rings.
Remember the Big Boy mascot ? Well, I also was one of the employees inside that suit for a few distance races and banquets, restaurant openings, parades and promotional events, and Christmas parties, too. You wore your own shoes inside the Big Boy shoes, and someone had to zip up the suit from the back. There were white, puffy gloves, and of course, the fiberglass head with signature hair curl. The Big Boy’s pretty blue eyes were painted on the outside of window screening, and the person in the suit owned zero peripheral vision whatsoever.
I shook hundreds of hands, waved to all that were visible, held a lot of babies, and I posed for pics with everyone from professional athletes and world-class runners to celebrities and to the same teenage boys who thought it was daring to smack the Big Boy in his rear end.
Over and over again, in fact. A veritable plethora.
And I knew, and had relationships with George, Ellis, and Mike. I saw George as the dreamer of the three; Ellis was always cordial and following my progress in sports; and Mike was hardcore but he appreciated my enthusiasm for his commissary kitchen. Not once did any of them scold me for playing around with the stereos, TVs, pinball machines, or computers in the Boury Inc. showroom, and once I was an employee they picked on me a bit but only, as George would say, “to make you better.”
He said something very similar one December when, as his paperboy on Hawthorne Court in Woodsdale, I rang his front-door bell five days before Christmas to collect $4.33 for his monthly subscription to the evening newspaper. Because, as a 13 year old, I had distributed a letter to all of my customers in late-November informing them that I would be saving all of my Christmas tips to buy a pair of skis, boots, polls, and whatever else I may need to join my classmates on the slopes.
Normally his housekeeper would answer the door, but this time George did. The conversation we had has been something I’ve replayed in mind a million-thousand times.
“Steven … come into the living room. Want a Coke?”
“Sure, Mr. Boury. Thank you.”
“George, please. I’ve known you now for a long time.”
“So,” he said then, “how close are you to buying your ski equipment? I know how expensive that stuff can be.”
“I’m hoping, after tonight, to be about $100 below the cost of the skis and the boots and the polls. I want to get some goggles, too.”
George Boury then reached into his pocket.
“Well, here’s the 50 bucks I was going to give you, and here’s another $100. Go home now, don’ tell your mom and dad, and go get your skis tomorrow.”
“Steven, call me George.”
And I did from that day on.
Growing Up on the Inside
The Rose Bowl Lanes on Edgington Lane were where my father bowled for Duval TV on during the first shift on Friday nights and back in the 1970s owner Leo Velas usually had three pinball machines. Five balls for a quarter was the back in the day, and I played many of the classics.
But then I found the “Fireball” pinball machine, and it was free and in the Boury Inc. showroom. If you walked into the legendary store from Main Street, the appliances like stoves, fridges, and washers and dryers were to the left, and the TVs and stereos were to the right. In the middle of the block-long, jam-packed display floor was the sales counter, the customer service counter, and then single- filed shelves crowded with restaurant equipment.
“Fireball” rested in close proximity to the sales counter. It was a high-ticket item, but the press of a particular button allotted you five more balls and those salesmen liked my father so they left me alone. Game after game, and yes, I got good.
And then it suddenly showed up in George’s basement when I attended one of his annual Christmas parties in the late 1970s. There were a couple of adult males playing so I walked up to watch, and a moment after they finished the game they invited me to play with them.
Five bucks later, and those boys that Christmas Eve walked away.
Other than chipper, shredder, and pinball ringer, my dad recruited me to fill many more roles during ages single-digit and teenage years. I helped comb a disgusting hillside near the former Downtowner Motel to retrieve thousands of beer cans, cigarette packs, discarded clothing, and who knows what else, to improve the image of ownership the day after the Boury brothers bought the eyesore.
I ate many fresh strawberries straight out of the shipping carts on many Saturday mornings during those same years because Dad took me along when he worked some extra hours at the Elby’s Commissary in East Wheeling. He would help pack truck after truck during a time when the dolly was utilized but the hydraulic advantages we have today had yet to be invented.
I guess I helped when I could and when asked, but I certainly recall the Big Boy platter that the boss, Bill Jebbia, insisted I had for lunch every time I was there. We would crowd around a small, center-facility, two-desk office and Jebbia, my dad, officer manager Ron Matella, and I would squeeze in and be silent for at least five minutes. Anyone who knew Jebbia knows that was just short of a miracle.
And I was made a maneuvering Martian, too, during one of the city’s Christmas parades in the late 1970s, when the event was still staged on Saturday afternoons. George Boury saw the big balloons floating above the New York City streets, and he wished to bring a little of that to his hometown. What he didn’t count on was the parade route and what 10 teenagers would need to do to prevent damage to power lines and to the spaceship balloon he rented for the day.
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At one point, as the procession turned left onto Lane 7, the roadway that split Stone & Thomas and the Kaufman’s dress shop and had Campeti’s along it for decades, but the alley was too narrow for the flying saucer. As we were quickly trained an hour before the start of the parade, those on the left side pulled down, and those on the right side pretty much let go. Once we trekked up the alley and were out of the way of utility lines along Main Street, we leveled it out, received some applause, and proceeded to the end of the course. And not once did a Martian remove his Martian mask.
Several years later and at the same time Mike Chokel was teaching me the Basic computer language on TRS 80 computers in the early 1980s at The Linsly School, the Boury brothers were going digital with their accounting records and sales reporting by each business under the Enterprise umbrella. But one summer morning in 1983, my father called from work and asked if I could take the Mount de Chantal bus to his office in downtown Wheeling so I could drive his company car to the WANG office in the Greentree outside of Pittsburgh.
Dad said the company’s mainframe had crashed; they needed a new one as soon as possible, and he needed me to, “get up there and back here quickly.” So that’s what I did, with a slight delay on the trip home.
The WANG representative was waiting for me upon my arrival, and he handed me what appeared something similar to that Martian spaceship. It was at least three feet in diameter, was protected by a shaded, plastic casing, and weighed more than a bowling bag with shoes and a 16-pound ball zipped inside.
On the way home before reaching Canonsburg though, I hit a snag in the shape of flashing blue lights and a giant of a man donning the flap hat traditional for a Pennsylvania State Trooper. I reached into my wallet for my license and then into the glove compartment for the registration and insurance information, and when he addressed me, I handed him the information immediately.
“Son, I clocked you going 71 mph in this 55 mph speed limit area, so why in the world does a 16-year-old boy need to go so fast on my interstate?”
“Do you like Big Boys and Hot Fudge Cakes?”
“I love them. Why?”
“Well, if I don’t get this hard drive to Wheeling really soon, you might not be able to get either one this evening,” I cleverly answered.
The trooper then walked back to his cruiser with my information, and six minutes later he returned to my window and found me praying for a warning I would never have to mention to my father.
“Son, going 71 mph is dangerous no matter who’s behind the wheel, so I’m giving you a speeding ticket,” he said as my heart sank. “But the ticket is for 61 m.p.h. instead of 71 because anything over 70 would mean you would lose your license.”
“Thank you, sir. Very much.”
The trooper pulled away first, and then I continued my trip while trying to figure out how to tell dad about the citation. By the time I reached downtown Wheeling, I had chosen the, “I’m sorry,” approach to the topic, and I used the line the moment before I handed my father the new hard drive.
“But Dad, on the way home, I got a speeding ticket for going 61 in a 55,” I said.
“Just give me the damn hard drive, Steven.”
And I never heard another word about that ticket.
Deliciousness on Rotation
The closest replica of my all-time favorite dinner at Elby’s that I’ve been able to find is on the menu at TJ’s Sports Garden and Restaurant on National Road in Wheeling.
The fish n’ chips.
Granted, it’s not served in a cardboard basket and on a faux newspaper liner, and it no longer comes with that yummy Elby’s tartar sauce. The last time I ordered the meal at T.J.’s, it was delivered on a mauve plate, and the “chips” – my French fries – were placed on a separate dish, but the fish cuts are similar in size and taste, and the rest of the platter is immediately transformed with a generous sprinkling of Big Boy seasoning salt acquired from Bob’s Big Boy out of Burbank, Calif.
T.J.’s also serves the “Big T,” the closest emulation to the Big Boy that I’ve discovered here in the valley region, but it is at Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville, where I’ve found the “Slim Gary,” the closest copy of the Slim Jim I’ve tasted.
Growing up familiar with the Elby’s menu was easy for a kid whose parents both worked for the company because I was fed lunches and dinners there on a weekly basis. It was often, honestly, that I developed a rotation to avoid tiring of one menu item. Dinners then a sandwich platter; pasta and then beef and then fish or shrimp again and then back to the chicken dinner; and with the pies and the cakes and sundaes on the list, it was with ease I enjoyed the desserts when room remained.
Liver and onions was one dinner I never ordered although it was one of my mother’s favorites. The dish was promoted on the menu as, “tender, flavorful liver with grilled sweet onions; French fries or baked potato; tossed salad; Grecian bread; and it appeared and smelled to be as tasty as promoted. But one bite of a tiny piece from my mom’s plate quickly taught me to look elsewhere because the texture and taste were not met with palatable approval.
Because of the frequency of my visits with my folks, as an employee, or as a regular customer, I also developed my favorite waitresses, and Lea (Woodsdale), and Dee Dee (downtown) were two of the tops. Lea was a beautiful, free-spirited young lady who always had fun while following those nine service steps, and Dee Dee would help me with learning French at school. On occasion as my father was driving my brother and me to St. Michael’s, she would be waiting for the bus for downtown. My dad would always pick her up and yes, the tutoring would begin the moment the passenger door closed.
Both ladies have continued living in the Wheeling area, and they do enjoy recalling their days of dishing out Big Boys and Hot Fudge Cakes.
“I worked there for more than 10 years and had a lot of fun, but I’m not sure what I remember, if that makes any sense at all,” Lea told me. “What I do remember is that we always tried to have a good time as long as everyone was doing the job so we could get out of there when we were supposed to.
“I was glad that I left there for a new job before the Bourys sold it because I heard it wasn’t a lot of fun there when all of the changes started taking place once Elias owned it,” she recalled. “I was told that they changed things that really didn’t need changed and that the customers were (angry).”
For decades, for example, the Boury brothers promoted their Chicken Dinner as a, “generous serving of plump, juicy chicken,” and every menu used made sure the patron would know that never, ever would a wing show up on a plate or in a bucket full. Breasts, thighs, and legs, that’s what was served but the final time I placed and picked up a bucket the received product was so disappointing that I never returned. The legs were smaller than the usual wing.
When I called to complain to a manager, I was told, “This is what it is now, Steve. It comes in on a truck from Michigan, and we have to sell it.”
Dad Moved to Detroit
Following the sudden sale of the Elby’s chain to Elias Bros. Co. in 1988 my father’s only option for continued employment was to report to an office in the Motor City area Monday through Friday to assist with the transition of adopting 76 Elby’s into the company’s operations. The position was good for one year, and then he, too, would be erased just as my mother’s position was the day the deal closed.
That was in 1989. He would drive there Sunday evenings and drive home at the end of the business day on Fridays, and he was never happy about it. But no one can ever described Ed Novotney as a “complainer”; he did his job, did it well, and then looked for the next task on his list. He remains the same today at the age of 85.
After that year came to a close, my father was in his late 50s, and with few opportunities in the city he moved to three decades prior and he’s been retired ever since. Even George Boury, prior to his passing in June 2009 at the age of 91, told me, “I always respected your father because he was one of the hardest workers we had. You should try to be the same kind of man.”
Neither one of my parents really enjoys recalling those years because both remain convinced the franchise still could exist today. They think it could work again, too, if the same business model – decent portions for affordable prices – would be adopted instead of what’s become the norm today.
My mom said to me recently, “At Elby’s it was all about the food but these days it seems to be all about everything else but the food.”