The Elby’s Empire: Part 7 – Could It Work Today?

(Writer’s Note: This is the seventh chapter in this series of stories that will concentrate on the history of one of the most storied restaurant franchises in Wheeling since the 1950s.)

At Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville, it’s listed as the “Slim Gary,” but at T.J.’s Sports Garden in Wheeling it’s known as the “Slam Jam.”

At the Mountaineer Inn near Wheeling it’s simply the “Slim Jim” on the menu just as it was for more than 30 years at Elby’s Family Restaurants. It’s not served on the grilled Grecian bread topped with sesame seeds, and but the ham, the lettuce and tomato, the Swiss cheese, and their own version of special sauce, too, are all there.

The owners of these establishments sell these legendary menu items because people still want them. A few decades ago in Moundsville taking a date to Elby’s was something of a status thing, and in Wheeling it signaled the relationship was getting fairly serious, and the same was the case in all the communities in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania, where that Big Boy statue could be seen and hugged by many. It was Elby’s, an institution with owners who made a difference in all of those cities and towns in which the eateries were located simply because it was important to them.

Mike Boury was the food guy, the brother in charge of the commissary, each and every ingredient down to the Jamaican relish in the tartar sauce. Ellis Boury was the peacemaker when possible, with the brothers, the public, and the company’s workforce. And then there was George Boury, the flamboyant one who was always the first in town with the fun, expensive toys and a home people drove by just to dream of owning the same someday.

“That house had a lot of things that many other houses did not have at that time because he was a very innovative man,” explained son Gregg Boury. “And there were a lot of interior renovations made to the house after it was built in 1956, and he added on to it through the years, too. There was an area in the basement that once was a crawl space, but then it was finished, and that’s where the pool table was.

“I used to take my friends into his wine cellar, and they would always be amazed by that,” he said. “And I did wonder what the new owners would think of the house once they realized all of the wiring that was needed and that was added through the years because eventually my father had telephones in every room, and he could control all of the lights on the inside and outside of the house from these control panels that were sprinkled throughout it.”

In honor of the Big Boy theme Van Fossen has recreated a booth setting in his home.
In honor of the Big Boy theme Van Fossen has recreated a booth setting in his home.

Craving It

He’s a local vocal artist, and he tours the tri-state region in his own bus. Granted, he has to wash the bus himself, but at least the wagon has “Matt Van Fossen” on the side of it.

Not only does Van Fossen perform in the Wheeling area but also across the Buckeye State and beyond. And he does his research in those cities to discover only one thing.

“All I want to know is if there is a Big Boy there because if there is, I’m going,” he confessed. “I’ve loved Big Boy since I went to Elby’s as a child with my mom, and it’s always been my favorite place to eat.

“It’s not just about the Big Boy sandwich, although I have always loved those,” he continued. “But the Elby’s menu, for me anyway, was always packed solid with great meals. The sandwiches, the dinners, the desserts; it was a big day when I was allowed to have the Hot Fudge Cake.”

When Van Fossen says he loves Big Boy, you can believe him. Not only does he collect Elby’s and Big Boy memorabilia from websites like Ebay, but he also often dons vintage T-shirts manufactured when the restaurants were open in the Wheeling area.

Oh yeah, he’s also renovated a portion of his East Ohio home into an Elby’s atmosphere by setting up a couple of booths complete with all the table fixings once found on all the tables at the 76 Elby’s Family restaurants.

“I know some people probably think I’m a little crazy, but it’s really a fun hobby that involves something that I’ve always loved,” he said. “People collect all kinds of things. Some people like stamps and coins and things like that. Me? If it’s got a Big Boy on it, I want it.

Elby's Family Restaurants offered "swag" to their employees for discounted prices.
Elby’s Family Restaurants offered “swag” to their employees for discounted prices.

“I’ve even found a lot of the menus that were used through the years when the restaurants were open,” Van Fossen continued. “And when you look at those prices through the years, you can tell that it was a very affordable for families back then. A Big Boy Platter was a lot of food but you could order one of those for less than $3. That’s still incredible to me when I think about how much things are these days.”

That was exactly the goal the Boury brothers had when they opened their first Elby’s in 1956 on National Road in Wheeling. Affordable food, a pleasant atmosphere, and great service were mandated for every single employee during their training. In fact, once Big Boy franchise officials presented the brothers with the company nine-step process for waiters and waitresses, the Bourys implemented the service plan without a second thought.

“Those nine steps just make sense if you think about being a customer,” said Boury. “Everyone wants to be acknowledged by a waiter or waitress when they first sit down because that way they know they are going to put their orders in soon. I don’t know many people who aren’t hungry when they go to a restaurant.

Local musician Matt Van Fossen has found and purchased many items online.
Local musician Matt Van Fossen has found and purchased many items online.

“And when the cooks had the meals ready, it was very important to the brothers for that food to be delivered to the tables as soon as possible because one of the steps was to serve hot food hot and cold food cold,” he said. “There were a lot of rules in place for every employee at every one of the restaurants because it was all about the customers. If they followed the steps and the rules, the employees made more money. That’s the way it worked then, and it’s still supposed to work that way when people go out to eat.”

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Boury worked for Elby’s at every position from the bottom to the top, and although the Boury brothers sold the franchise to the Elias Brothers more than 20 years ago, he still is able to recall most of the secrets to success.

“I don’t remember all of the specifics, but I do remember more today than I thought I would after so much passed time,” Boury said. “The reason I remember what I do is that it was so important to get them exact, and it didn’t matter what Elby’s you were working at. Consistency was absolutely critical.

“No matter where you were working, the recipe was exactly the same, and you were chastised if you didn’t follow the recipe,” he said. “My guess is that I remember so much even today because of how ingrained it was at that time.”

The Boury brothers opened the first Elby's in Wheeling before Interstate 70 was completed in the area.
The Boury brothers opened the first Elby’s in Wheeling before Interstate 70 was completed in the area.

Doing the Job

Van Fossen dreams of opening a Big Boy restaurant some day because he is a firm believer today’s Upper Ohio Valley consumers would flock to such a place once again.

“When I go to the Big Boy near Columbus, it’s always crowded,” he said. “It’s a Frisch’s, so there are some differences between those and what Elby’s used to be, and they don’t have all of the same things on the menu as did at Elby’s, but it’s still a Big Boy, and it’s still operated the same way.

“Best of all, it’s still very affordable, and the food is very good,” Van Fossen continued. “That’s why I think it would work here again. They were very successful here until the Elias company started changing things that they shouldn’t have touched. People stopped going, and that’s really why they ultimately closed down for good around here.”

Boury, though, is not as confident as Van Fossen.

“I just don’t think that in the end there was enough of a response to the changing tastes and changing times,” Boury said. “And then after the sale the people really did not like the changes that the new owners were making. But for many years the lack of flexibility on the brothers’ part early on was a good thing, but when the industry started to change, that lack of flexibility became a negative.

“People wanted to start eating lighter fare, fresher fare, and there was a trend away from menus that were top-heavy,” he continued. “The fried fish sandwich is never going to go away, and Coleman’s can speak to that, but there just wasn’t a good enough of a balance, in my opinion. People are eating healthier than what was on the Elby’s menu. I know I am, so that’s why I am not sure it could work today.”

But other places still offer the classics and that’s because imitations of the triple-decker Big Boy and the Slim Jim still are often ordered.

“That is true,” Boury conceded. “But maybe that’s just because of what they meant to those customers when Elby’s was still around,” he said. “But who really knows?”

Local artist Bob Villamagna had some fund with this piece with memories of Elby's country fried chicken in mind.
Local artist Bob Villamagna had some fund with this piece with memories of Elby’s country fried chicken in mind.

Another issue pertains to that consistent service at Elby’s that was supervised for more than a couple of decades by Donna Holmberg. She started with the company as a waitress at the Elby’s adjacent to the Ohio Valley Medical Center in Center Wheeling and scaled to the ladder to service supervisor for the entire chain of eateries prior to departing for a position with the Kroger Co. before the brothers sold to the Elias Brothers.

Holmberg was charged with enforcing the rules and those nine steps, and she wonders if such demands would sit well with employees these days.

“The work ethic of our society was totally different from what it is today. People then took much more pride in the job they did than they do today,” she said. “Now, that’s not to say that people today don’t take pride in their jobs, but I think overall that today’s work ethic is nothing compared to what it used to be.

“It made it easier back then to hire somebody that was willing to do a job that we could be proud of at that time, but we had to take that ball and keep it rolling with the training process,” she said. “It was very detailed, and it was a timely process, but the brothers were not afraid to spend the money to give the employees the training they believed was essential to a successful business. Now? That I’m not too sure about, honestly.

But Terry Endsley, now the general manager of the McDonald’s in Martins Ferry, disagrees. In his final role with Boury Enterprises, Endsley was the general manager of the location along National Road, and then of the eatery situation on the corner of 12th and Main streets in downtown Wheeling. Following the closure of that Elby’s, in fact, he signed a lease with the owners of the Laconia Building for “Endsley’s Restaurant.”

“I knew the people in downtown Wheeling would still want their Brawny Lads, Slim Jims, and Big Boys and we sold a lot of those while we had the restaurant,” he recalled. “The only reason we closed that store was that the Wheeling-Pitt building was pretty much empty because of the bankruptcies and the sales of the company.

There was not a lot of visibility for the person inside the Big Boy suit.
There was not a lot of visibility for the person inside the Big Boy suit.

“At one time I believe there were more than 400 people working in the building, but that number dwindled down over the years, and so did our business. In the end, before my wife and I finally made the decision to close, it got to be tough to survive financially. I was putting too much of our own money into it, and to be honest, we’re still digging out of that hole.”

Endsley, though, still believes in the model created by Mike, Ellis, and George Boury.

“They weren’t always the best people to work for, but that was because they knew the consistency was what people counted on when they went to an Elby’s,” he said. “If something wasn’t consistent, the brothers let you know it. But that was their job.

“And, yes, the menu would have to be different, but not completely different. People still enjoy the big cheeseburgers; I can tell you that. I watch hundreds of them leave McDonald’s every day,” Endsley added. “I do. I think it could still work in this area. And wouldn’t that be a great thing if it came back?”