It's hard to miss: a giant, neon-trimmed steer's head, towering over Van Buren Street and slugged with the goofball legend, "Let's Eat!"
Bill Johnson's Big Apple is one of only a few notable restaurants that have stuck around long enough to become part of our town's history (see main story for more).The Big Apple — which refers not to New York City, but to the late Bill Johnson's favorite dance craze — is a Western-themed joint that tells a truly Phoenix story, all about cowboys and country music and, just lately, a showdown among members of an Old West family. One can't help wondering whether all this acrimony — and news of an "updated" menu — won't make the hometown appeal of Bill Johnson's Big Apple beside the point.
The building itself, recently painted, isn't historically significant. Located in a crummy part of town at 3757 East Van Buren, the original location (now part of a chain of five restaurants sprinkled across the Valley) is where Johnson and his wife, Gene, settled in 1955. The story goes that they arrived in a Cadillac convertible with steer horns strapped to the hood, and that they traveled with a man whose job was to open the door of the car and announce "Bill Johnson is here!" wherever they stopped.
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Gene sold barbecued ribs and deep-dish apple pie, and Bill, a former trapeze artist, broadcast a KTAR-hosted radio program from a corner of the shop. Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, and Wayne Newton were regulars on the program and in the dining room, and Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Johnny Cash stopped by whenever they were in town. When there were no famous country singers to interview, Bill would wander around the restaurant with his microphone, chatting up customers.
Bill died in 1966. Gene and the kids took over the restaurant, and kept it leaping over various economic hurdles — its increasingly remote location; the advent of nearby hotels with their own cafes.
After a while, Big Apple was popular simply because it was still there. For tourists, the restaurant provided a little local color for out-of-town visitors who wanted to eat at a place with sawdust on the floor, where their waitress was dressed in Annie Oakley drag. For locals, it's continued to provide that rarest of Phoenix indulgences: hometown nostalgia. With precious few old haunts left, Bill Johnson's was a place where one might eat the same slice of apple pie one had ordered there for 30 years, while reminiscing about having stopped in for dinner on your way to the senior prom in 1968.
But this wouldn't be a Phoenix story if it didn't eventually devolve into a modern-day shootout at the O.K. Corral and threats of corruption, with the likelihood that another local landmark was about to bite the dust. When news broke late last year that the Big Apple chain was headed to bankruptcy court, it seemed inevitable that Bill Johnson's was a goner.
"I'm in the process of trying to save this business," says Bill and Gene's granddaughter and Big Apple CEO Sherry Cameron, who's been waging a very public battle with family members who, she's claimed, would prefer to sell the chain rather than keep it going. (Her uncles have gone public with the opinion that Cameron's trying to swindle them.)
"It's not an extraordinarily profitable project to be pouring this much energy and profit into," admits Cameron, a graduate of the Thunderbird School of Global Management. "But it's worth it from a preservation perspective. A Phoenix-hometown, heart-and-soul perspective. Some of our employees have been here 40 years, and some of our patrons even longer."
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Cameron, who's still duking it out with her family, has secured a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that will allow her and several business partners to buy the company, clear it of debt, and put it back on track. She says she's determined to make this work for a couple of reasons: because her grandmother asked her to keep the family business going, and because of what she learned in Singapore.
"I was living in Singapore for a long time," she says, "and there was this very shortsighted way of doing business there. If the locals could make money by tearing down an old building and putting up a new one, they would do it, regardless of the loss of local history. I got back here a few years ago, and I looked around and said, 'Oh, great. Phoenix is doing that, too.'"
Cameron's determined to keep those steer horns airborne on Van Buren Street. Toward that end, she's moving forward with her buyout plan and, in the meantime, has tweaked the Big Apple menu to include more contemporary takes on the usual barbecue fare. It's an unusual choice, considering that part of the Big Apple's appeal is its evergreen, home-cooking-inspired menu. If diners can get pulled pork and St. Louis ribs at a chain restaurant near their home, will they bother to drive to an old haunt that's serving the same thing?
Cameron thinks so. "But most people think I'm out of my mind to even bother with all this," she says. "Then someone will come in and say, 'My grandparents had their wedding reception here!' and I don't want to have to say, 'Yeah, and we're going to tear it all down next month.'" — Robrt L. Pela