Big Boy, both statue and restaurant chain, are American icons. So’s the image of America as a great melting pot. And icon meets icon at Ann Arbor’s Zeeb Road Big Boy, one of only two in the company’s national chain to serve tabouli, hummus, baba ghanoush, and other Mediterranean classics alongside the Big Boy’s traditional all-American fare. New franchisees Abdul, Andy, and Fred Karkoukli, who took over the store March 1, were granted this culinary leeway because of their track record with the company; the brothers have owned a number of successful Big Boy franchises for the past thirty years. Currently, they run a Big Boy in Rochester Hills–the one other Big Boy that serves Mediterranean dishes.
Opened with great fanfare in 2007 and hailed as being on the architectural cutting edge at the time, the Zeeb Road Big Boy has had a rocky ride. It’s been run as a corporate store since August 2009, when then-franchisees Sam and Bill Berry received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent and literally left in the middle of the night, taking most of the fixtures with them. Things should settle down considerably now that corporate has handed over the keys to the Karkouklis, who are on-site every day.
Abdul Karkoukli, fifty-four, and his brothers Andy, fifty-two, and Fred, fifty-six, immigrated to the states from their native Syria in 1976 and started working for Big Boy in management right from the beginning. Abdul had the glamorous job: while his brothers worked at corporate headquarters here in the states, he was vice president in charge of overseas development in Saudi Arabia and helped open the first Big Boy franchise in that country. He spent two years there, and when he came home in 1992, he and his brothers left the safety of their corporate jobs to open their first franchise in Waterford. And while other investors co-own the Rochester store with them, the three brothers are sole owners of the Zeeb Road location. “We were talking to [corporate] and wanted another location,” Abdul says. “I knew the records [of the Zeeb Road store], and there was a good potential to improve sales.”
When they wanted to introduce Mediterranean items in Waterford, Abdul says, “Big Boy approved as long as the quality of the food is good.” And apparently it is; the dishes are from the brothers’ original recipes, and all three work in the kitchen preparing them. The Karkouklis also offer a uniquely American innovation on Zeeb Road: the restaurant is also the only one in the chain to debut a burger bar where customers can assemble their own sandwiches.
Abdul doesn’t know if Mediterranean cuisine is part of Big Boy’s national future, but he’d support the effort in a heartbeat. “The customers love it,” he says.
Big Boy, 497 N. Zeeb. 997-9323, Sun.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. www.bigboy.com