Roy Rogers once said, “When my time comes, just skin me and put me up there on Trigger, just as though nothing had ever changed.”
Though it has been over two decades since R.J. Lee’s passing, the mark he left on the Texas Panhandle remains as his restaurant, the Big Texan Steak Ranch, continues to gain recognition worldwide.
In the late 1950s, R.J. and his wife, Mary Ann, moved their family to Texas in hopes of continuing their American dream.
“Dad was a true Yankee from Chicago,” Bobby Lee, owner of the Big Texan Steak Ranch, said.
He loved cowboys and wanted to go where cowboys lived. He came to Texas in search of them and didn’t find any, so he made one of his own.”
In 1960, R.J. opened the Big Texan along Route 66 in Amarillo. His goal was to create an environment that embodied the spirit of the Wild West he admired so much while serving food that lived up to the “first-class Texas style.”
“Route 66 gave the Big Texan its life, its heartbeat really,” Bobby said.
When people from all over the country drove through Texas, they wanted to eat where the ideal cowboys ate. They chose the Big Texan over franchised restaurants because it was the epitome of the Old West they saw on television and movies.”
However, with the installation of Interstate 40 in 1970, business for the restaurant declined as the convenience of the new highway detoured travelers away from their location on the Route 66.
With their business dropping by 95 percent, the crucial decision was made to relocate the restaurant away from the “Mother Road” to the frequently used highway.
Though it is now located on the north side of I-40 East between the Lakeside and Whitaker exits, the original building is still standing on the 4500 block of East Amarillo Boulevard.
The novelty of the Big Texan came through the 72-ounce steak challenge.
Legend has it that a cowboy came into the restaurant one day ranting and raving over how hungry he was. By boasting that he could eat “the whole darn cow,” R.J. placed a 72-ounce steak dinner in front of him.
From that day forward, the challenge was established that anyone who could eat the 72-ounce steak dinner (which includes a 72-ounce sirloin steak, a baked potato, salad, dinner roll and shrimp cocktail) in an hour, the regularly priced $72 meal would be free. As their taunting slogan states, “Many have tried, many have failed.”
Next year, the Big Texan will celebrate its 50th anniversary. To commemorate its half-century mark, the owners are setting up a world steak-eating championship.
The few that have already conquered the 72-ounce steak challenge will be invited to return for the championship. Categories will be set up for professionals and nonprofessionals, and the winners of each group will receive $10,000.
Since R.J.’s passing in 1990, his children have continued his legacy and have transformed the restaurant into a full-blown industry. In addition to the thriving restaurant, it’s now a catering service, a motel and an in-house advertising agency.
The Big Texan Motel is conveniently connected to the actual restaurant and continues the restaurant’s theme of vintage Wild West. The company offers special rates for specific holidays such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s. For the convenience of their customers, they have an extra large parking lot for RVs, semi-trucks and horse trailers.
Visitors have access to a complimentary “horse hotel” where customers can rest at ease knowing their horses are being well taken care in the secure and maintained arena located near the motel.
The Big Texan also runs a catering company and “Texas,” the musical production located in Palo Duro Canyon, has been one of their top clients for several years.
They also own a limousine fleet that transports their customers from their hotels to the restaurant as a complimentary incentive to make their Texas experience more memorable.
The Big Texan also has an in-house advertising agency where they produce all their marketing tools. By taking charge of their own publicity, the owners are able to customize their advertisements in the fashion they desire. Their billboards scattered along I-40 are only a few of their productions.
Bobby, along with his brother and sister, were all born and raised in Amarillo. Since the day they were born, they were immersed in the life and business of the Big Texan.
Bobby graduated from WT in 1983 with a general studies degree, many of his hours dedicated to mass communications in print media and advertising.
During his college career, he played for the football team and was on staff with The Prairie.
“Though I don’t think my dad could have possibly seen how far his dream would go, I do believe his main goal was to make the Big Texan world renown,” Bobby said.
His goal has been reached; the world knows about us. We’re proud to represent Amarillo and the Panhandle area, and we look forward to continue embodying the spirit of Texas.”