A big slice of the pie

38-year-old Manistee restaurant named on Pure Michigan’s best pizza list

With items like the Poppa Whoppa, Giant Stromboli, Nacho Supreme and Super Sub on its menu, Big Al’s certainly lives up to its name.

Order a deluxe tossed extra large pizza, and the 38-year-old Manistee restaurant will hit your eye with a pie 18 inches in diameter — a whole table’s worth of cheesy, meaty, delicious cuisine.

And since Big Al’s is in the business of going … well … ‘Big,’ it should come as no surprise that its hometown following — the large legion of diehards who swear by its bite being better than the rest — answered the call to crown Al’s as one of Michigan’s best.

Yes, for a small family-owned establishment, Big Al’s is big; way bigger than the circumference of the most massive of crusts.

Customers pack into Big Al’s booths during a weekday lunch hour. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

MAKING THE LIST

Jim Anderson recalls being in Chicago for a Cubs game, when his T-shirt attracted some surprise attention.

“We were across the street from Wrigley Field,” he said, “and I had people come up to me saying, ‘Big Al’s! Oh my God, we love that place when we go up north.’”

Jim, the son of Big Al’s owner, Art Anderson, often dons the design on his chest. He does so because he’s proud of his place of employment.

“Things like that make you happy,” he said of the recognition of the restaurant. “I mean, they were from down there and they remember us from a vacation or something.

“People who’ve moved away, they swing into town or something and tell us that their first stop was Big Al’s. That’s just really nice to hear.”

The Andersons were also pleasantly surprised to hear of the recent results of an online poll conducted by Pure Michigan. Big Al’s was one of just nine Michigan pizza places featured in an August post titled “Best Pizzas in Pure Michigan” on www.puremichiganblog.org.

“Equally renowned for their subs as well as their pizzas,” the site stated, “devoted fans have been known to crave their special sauce.”

And devoted fans — through Twitter and Facebook polls — were the reason Big Al’s made the list.

“We’re definitely excited about it,” said Dave Anderson, Art’s elder son and president of the company. “We knew nothing about (the recognition from Pure Michigan) until it happened. Then one day, I had a bunch of guys at work show me and I got a bunch of phone calls about it.

“You’ve got to appreciate the customers,” he added. “This whole thing is all about them, and we’re just so thankful for it.”

LONG TIME COMING

Art and his wife Wilma opened Big Al’s in May of 1973. Their son Dave was just 2, and growing up in the family business has yielded plenty of familiar faces.

(Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

“I still get a bunch of people that come in and tell me to tell my dad ‘Hi,’” Dave said. “We used to come in after school all the time, so I still recognize a lot of the same people I remember coming in when I was 12.”

Through the years, Dave has witnessed the restaurant evolve in many ways — and then not at all in others.

The now 20-year-old Big Al’s building holds a framed painting of the original venue. It sat on the same Parkdale Avenue location, but proved too small for the growing business.

“Back then, after high school dances, games, you couldn’t walk shoulder to shoulder in there,” Dave said. “People kind of had to push their way through. (A new building) was a necessity.

“That’s the thing about this building too,” he added. “At the time it was much bigger than the other one, and now it feels too small. It’s like we can’t keep up.”

The things that haven’t been altered, however, are the Anderson’s recipes and their pride in the product.

“We haven’t changed our recipes at all. Some suppliers have changed,” Dave said, citing that most ingredients are locally grown in Northern Michigan. “but for the most part, we’ve been making all the same stuff.

“And for us, it’s always been about putting out a good product. We make sure the quality’s always there,” he added. “We want to stay consistent with our quality. … We make sure you get a good product every time you pay for it.”

The strategy not only seems to work, but is greatly appreciated considering Big Al’s place on Pure Michigan’s list.

“That’s something that comes around every 38 1/2 years,” Dave joked of the accolade. “For us, it’s awesome. But it’s really cool for the customers, especially since they voted.”

NOT A RESTAURANT, A TRADITION

It’s a Wednesday afternoon. The lunch rush seemed to be dying down, but just underwent its second wave.

While Big Al’s employees bustle in the back, the dining area’s nearly half full with customers:

Andrew and Wade Reed grab a table close to the counter. The brothers from Bear Lake are taking a brief lunch break from their roofing job just down the road. They each order Al’s Specials — a popular sub, dressed generously with Big Al’s secret Sub Sauce — and eat them with their recently washed hands, which sparklingly stand out from their dirtied forearms and worn work clothes.

“This is the fourth or fifth time we’ve been here for lunch since starting this (roofing) project,” Andrew estimates. “We love it.”

As the Reeds comfortably refill their soft drinks behind the service counter, Dixie and Rusty Fralic arrive and take a corner booth.

The Fralics now live in Texas, but visit their hometown twice a year.

“We try to get Big Al’s in as much as we can while we’re here,” Dixie says.

And for good reason. Before they both were Fralics, the two remember eating Big Al’s in 1974.

“We used to come here when we first started dating,” Rusty says, “This was our first date.”

Dixie reminds him that Art would make them heart-shaped pizzas for their anniversary.

A customer, waiting for his sub, overhears the murmurs of nostalgia being playfully passed around the building.

“This really isn’t a restaurant,” he adds, “It’s a tradition.”

Big Al’s may pack a big bite, but a tradition?

Traditions are ritualistic, culturally driven, family orientated and last only as long as the people who carry them on …

“You can get married to this job,” Dave said. “And when you’re here so much, you kind of don’t realize the big effect you might have outside.

“A lot of the customers you used to see come in that moved away, you’ll see them come back up for a visit and come back in with their kids. That can be pretty humbling to see.”

Sounds like this tradition might last quite a while longer.

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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