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For 81 years, the all-you-can-eat fried chicken, cornbread sticks and sweet and sour coleslaw filled up customers sitting at the long wooden tables of Big Boy's Restaurant, which faces Interstate 70 in Wright City.

But now the restaurant is closed, its future clouded, because the state says the restaurant owes more than $30,000 in sales tax.

"We are closed temporarily," says a paper sign taped on the restaurant's front door. "Please accept our apology for any inconvenience."

Longtime workers at the restaurant say they doubt the interstate landmark will open again.

State investigators walked into Big Boy's after the busy lunchtime period on April 20, flashed their badges and asked to speak to the restaurant's operator, Kevin King. After talking with the investigators, King told employees that the restaurant was closed. The investigators stayed long enough to let the customers already there finish their meals.

Barb Jones, 54, a manager who has worked at Big Boy's for nearly 19 years, arrived for her 3 p.m. shift that day to find a group of stunned employees.

"The best part of that place was that it was comfortable to so many of us," she said. "We had been with each other so many years, and it had been like a family. I told Kevin when I came in, 'You know, you just broke up a family.'"

Jones said King didn't have much to say in response. King could not be reached for comment.

Only three families have owned Big Boy's since it first opened in 1924, and for generations customers have stuffed the restaurant to stuff themselves during weekday breakfasts or Sunday dinners on the way home from Mizzou football games.

"There's people from California to the East Coast that know Big Boy's," said Wright City Police Chief David Wait, who said City Hall has since fielded phone calls from people wondering why the restaurant had closed.

The restaurant has no connection to the Big Boy chain that features the hamburger-hoisting youngster with the checkered overalls. In fact, that Big Boy was born in 1936, 12 years after the Wright City Big Boy's came to town. Interstate 70 travelers will undoubtedly recognize the sign depicting the local Big Boy's: a grinning, buck-toothed man wearing a gray tuxedo and spats and holding a platter of chicken.

It could be a caricature of farmer J.W. Chaney, known as "Big Boy" for the nearly 300 pounds on his 6-foot frame. One morning in June 1924, Chaney and his family were passing through Wright City on the way back from a trip to Colorado, and stopped for breakfast at the Silver Moon Cafe. Chaney loved the restaurant and the surrounding countryside so much he bought the business on the spot. He and his wife and two sons stayed to serve lunch.

Chaney's sons took over the business after he died in 1940, and they sold the restaurant to Ed and Lola Baseel in the early 1960s. The Baseels turned over the business to the King family in 1985.

Many of Big Boy's 40 or so employees have remained loyal to their longtime owners. Dining room manager Margaret Dixon, 56, began working at Big Boy's as a 15-year-old waitress. In fact, two daughters, her mother and a niece worked there.

"When I go to town, a lot of the customers told me, 'We wish we knew. I would have eaten there one more time.' And I said, 'I wish we knew, too.'"

Mariette and Richard Palmer of Town and Country are two of those loyal customers. They have been eating at Big Boy's since they were high school students in the early 1950s. He was on the University City High School track team, and she was the coach's daughter. They'd stop at Big Boy's on the way home from state track meets in Columbia, Mo.

The Palmers became regular Friday night customers in more recent years when they stayed at their lake home at nearby Innsbrook resort. They were so friendly with the staff, an upset teenage busboy called them at home to tell them Big Boy's had closed.

"There's a big void there," Mariette Palmer said. "Nothing can take its place."

Valerie Schremp Hahn is a features writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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