The owners of the last surviving Big Ed’s Hamburgers in northwest Oklahoma City still refer to the restaurant as No. 14, although all of the other Big Ed’s stores closed years ago.
Owners Cyrus and Patty Naheed have operated the hamburger restaurant in the Camelot Square Shopping Center at NW 122 and Pennsylvania since the 1990s.
“People always ask why I put No. 14 on everything when there are no other restaurants, but we were the 14th restaurant,” said Cyrus Naheed.
The restaurant still looks much the same as it did when it first opened in Camelot Square in 1984, with a black-and-white checkerboard linoleum floor, orange-vinyl covered banquet chairs and wood-panel walls. More importantly, Cyrus Naheed says, the menu hasn’t changed — customers can still order a 3-pound burger. The sandwich is so large that it has to be served on a pizza pan and is cut into eight wedges like a layer cake. The foot-wide buns for the behemoth “family” burger are custom made by La Baguette Bakery.
The Naheeds’ restaurant is the last remnant of a Oklahoma City-based hamburger empire that once spanned Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. The Big Ed’s chain once boasted more than 40 restaurants.
Out-of-towners from Kansas who recall eating at Big Ed’s as children still visit the last surviving Big Ed’s from time to time, usually during baseball season while traveling to a game in Oklahoma City, Naheed said. When the restaurant started selling T-shirts a few years back, the Naheeds quickly sold out after receiving orders from as far away as Australia.
Patty Naheed, who Cyrus Naheed refers to reverently as “the boss,” rules the kitchen with a firm hand — she once had a career as a high school principal.
“I don’t think I’m that tough — I just ask that they do their jobs,” she said.
Lost burger empire
Big Ed’s was founded in Oklahoma City by Edward “Big Ed” L. Thomas in 1974.
Thomas founded the brand with just 38 cents and the idea that he could make a better hamburger, Cyrus Naheed said.
“He got bread and meat and told his suppliers he would pay them tomorrow,” Cyrus Naheed said.
Thomas had a talent for remembering each customer’s name and how they liked their burger after just one visit, which helped the business grow.
Thomas began to sell franchise rights for the Big Ed’s concept, which spread in the 1970s and ’80s across Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
Things went downhill for Thomas in 1986 when his wife Jennie suffered massive injuries from a head-on car collision involving an uninsured driver who was under the influence of alcohol. The wreck left Jennie Thomas in a wheelchair and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Ed Thomas was forced to sell his interest in the Big Ed’s brand in 1996.
Emulating the original
Big Ed’s employee Tre Byrd, who has been working the grill at the restaurant since 1994, said he can remember when Thomas would come into the restaurant from time to time.
“He was a very happy person,” Byrd said. “He was always smiling and just nice to everyone.”
The number of Big Ed’s franchises began to dwindle in the years after Jennie Thomas’ car accident, from 46 to about 16 in the mid-1990s, according to newspaper archives.
By the time Franchise Development Co. purchased the Big Ed’s brand in September 1996, the chain included five company-owned restaurants and three franchisees and a license location, according to newspaper archives.
Although Thomas died in 2009, the Naheeds say they still follow the same business manual that Big Ed’s used.
“I feel like keeping this place open is a tribute to Ed, it would be disrespecting his memory to close it,” Patty Naheed said.
The Naheeds still run the restaurant on the principles that Thomas taught them.
“Fresh ingredients and building one customer at a time,” Cyrus Naheed said.