Move Could Be in Store for Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch

The Lee brothers of The Big Texan Steak Ranch are weighing a decision much heavier than the 72-ounce steak for which their family tourism empire has become known.

The Amarillo Globe-News reports Bobby Lee and Danny Lee face a choice much like their father, Big Texan founder Robert J. "Bob" Lee, did in the late 1960s -- to stay in place or move.

In 1970, Bob Lee Sr. opened The Big Texan Steak House at 7701 E. Interstate 40, boldly gambling that the bustling new interstate would bring even more success for the 10-year-old restaurant he moved from an East Amarillo Boulevard stretch of Route 66.

This year, The Big Texan Steak Ranch will serve almost 500,000 meals to a stream of mostly tourists seeking an Old West experience in its dining room, gift shop, arcade, beer garden and hotel.

And it's that nonstop traffic that has the place bursting at the seams, the late Lee's sons said.

"We either need to have one more summer here and be in a new place before the next summer comes around, or we have to put a ton of money into our current location just to get it to last that much longer," Bobby Lee said.

The short move a half-mile west on Interstate 40 has been the subject of long contemplation."Two years ago, we started looking at needing to renovate this (current) building, ... and we were looking at many millions of dollars to do that," Danny Lee said. "We're landlocked with a building that is running at capacity because the popularity of the restaurant just never seems to cease."

Since then, the business partner brothers -- two of eight Lee children who all grew up at The Big Texan -- have shaped and reshaped a vision for land at Interstate 40, between Eastridge Street and Whitaker Road, that their father bought decades ago.

"He said, `One day, you might need this,"' Bobby Lee recalled.

The Big Texan founder was "one of those incredible visionaries in this industry and probably the best promoter I've ever seen in my life," Texas Restaurant Association CEO Richie Jackson said. "I had the opportunity to know him early in my career. It doesn't surprise me at all that he was looking at where they needed to head and what they needed to do."

The proposed site of a tourist complex starring The Big Texan runs along I-40 and envelops Splash Kingdom Waterpark. The family sold that chunk of land to the water park's original builder in 1999, according to Potter-Randall Appraisal District records.

The Lees recently have added adjacent tracts to bring their holdings there to more than 100 acres, they said.

PRAD shows the appraised value of the RV park property at close to $520,400. Appraised values for the other individual tracts -- some with structures, most with none -- total more than $728,000, according to data from PRAD.

Key purchases in May, Danny Lee said, were the acquisition of the 24-acre Amarillo Ranch RV Park at 1414 Sunrise Drive from the Sam Hill Limited Partnership and 32 acres from Budweiser Distributing Co. The Budweiser tract lies between existing companies to the south on I-40, such as West Texas Document and FedEx, and the Homer's Backyard Ball property to the north.

"Either we're going to have a lot of acreage to play around with for the next couple of decades and give to our kids or we're, in the next couple of months, going to make this decision and go in with both feet," Danny Lee said. "We're six weeks before we know that we're going to have that launch button placed in front of us. And when we push it, there is no turning back at that point.

"Our idea is to get people to come to Amarillo as a destination."

The brothers envision building a 60,000-square-foot Big Texan surrounded by other attractions on parcels they would sell or lease to developers.

"We would like to stick with just (running) the restaurant," Bobby Lee said.

Everything in the complex would be licensed to carry the Big Texan brands and trademarks, he said.

"We've met with builders, architects, over the past three months, and we have to get plans started, drawn and in place within, hopefully, three to four months to where we could be in a new location on March of 2017," Bobby Lee said.

Location within a complex of attractions could allow The Big Texan and the entities surrounding it to capitalize even more on its nationwide reach and reputation, Jackson and Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council Vice President Dan Quandt said.

Long before 120-pound competitive eater Molly Schuyler gulped down a record three 72-ounce steak meals in 20 minutes in April, the restaurant and its mega eating challenge garnered attention from numerous television and travel shows.

This year alone, it's had visits from Schuyler -- her second -- and "The Great Food Truck Race" and, last year, Conan O'Brien put the monster meat slab in his catapult for hoops shooting at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Magazines, newspapers, website "best of" lists and social media mentions contribute to the 139,000 results turned up in a Google search for The Big Texan on Friday. An L.A. Times travelogue about it last month prompted a thank you letter to the Times from Amarilloan Mike Yazbek because the story won him a $100 bet with a friend.

"I bet him that there was nowhere I could go and not see or hear a mention of either the song `Amarillo by Morning,' The Big Texan or a combination of the two," Yazbek wrote.

Shanghai General Motors brought its fourth annual Route 66 excursion for Chinese Cadillac owners through Amarillo in July 2014, at the same time North America's largest Chinese-run television company, ICN TV Network, visited to broadcast a travel reality show episode, Amarillo Globe-News archives show. Another Shanghai GM group followed in August.

Amarillo sees nearly 300 overnight bus tours a year, "and at least a third to half of those are out at The Big Texan," Quandt said.

"That's not counting groups that are coming in and want to experience that and then are going on to someplace else."

About 500 diners can fit into the main dining room, with waits in peak seasons sometimes stretching an hour to 90 minutes, Bobby Lee said.

The Big Texan's free limousine service, which ferries guests to and from hotels, motels, RV parks, truck stops and other locations, now hauls about 60,000 people a year, he said.

Such growth has created "the kind of problems that restaurants love to have," Jackson said. "I'm sure it's a hard decision for them (to move), but I think they might come to the conclusion that they've got to continue to meet customer demand. ... If that requires a move, I think that's what you do.

"A restaurant is never static. You always have to make a change. I think they're keenly aware of that and will come to that decision."

Partnership attractions at the new site could be varied -- equestrian activities, an indoor sports courts facility, an indoor shooting range and other ideas have been discussed with interested parties, the Lees said.

"You could build a hotel in front of the water park and make a connection between the two," Danny Lee said.

Splash Kingdom has been in conversation with the Lees about their plans since the Canton water park company purchased the former Splash Amarillo last year, Marketing Director Mickey Lewis said. The companies already collaborate on marketing, including offering "stay and play" pricing packages for visitors to the RV park.

That RV park, by the way, is being converted to a new name, Big Texan RV Ranch, Bobby Lee said.

The idea of "standing on the shoulders of The Big Texan" is benefiting and will continue to benefit Splash Kingdom, Lewis said.

"There has been mention of a year-round water park facility in conjunction with a hotel," Lewis said. "That's one of our highest and best plans, if it comes to fruition."

Building the Big Texan restaurant itself would cost $175 to $200 per square foot, Bobby Lee estimated.

Although the restaurant structure could be twice as large, much of that more expansive footprint would be in kitchen operations, banquet rooms, a bigger gift shop and an enlarged brewery, Danny Lee said.

The Big Texan began serving hand-crafted brews in 2011, and it now puts out as much as 81 gallons of beer a day, Bobby Lee said.

The Lee brothers intend for the Big Texan atmosphere to remain the same, they said.

"Every board, every animal head, it would look and feel and smell just like The Big Texan," Bobby Lee said.

"The one thing we don't want to do is Disney it up, or make it look plastic. Down to the squeaky board on the front porch, it would all be the same."

His brother agreed.

"We want people, when they go, to see the big rocking chair and the big 72-ounce steak," Danny Lee said. "We don't want to lose the identity. If we build it, we'll keep it as much the same as possible."

Quandt thinks the demand will follow The Big Texan that half-mile west.

"Their numbers just keep getting higher and higher," he said. "They keep breaking their own records. They want to be part of the lore of (Amarillo).

"For The Big Texan, icon seems too tame a word. It's just a living, breathing Texas legend."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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