Fat City Gets the Steve Bigari treatment

Hold onto your hamburgers and tune up your drive-thrus, Denver: Steve Bigari is coming to town.

Bigari, a Colorado Springs McDonald’s franchise owner who used one of his more ingenious fast-food inventions, a drive-thru call center, to break the drive-thru world record for number of customers served per hour in 2005, then sold his restaurants to focus on America's Family Inc., his charity dedicated to helping the working poor, has set his entrepreneurial sites on the Mile High City. On February 8, he acquired Fat City, a 144,000 square foot family fun center at 9670 West Coal Mine Avenue in Littleton, to expand his successful Colorado Springs operation, Mr. Biggs Family Food and Fun Destination. And, like everything Bigari does, he’s got big plans for his second Mr. Biggs. Very big plans.

“I think first and foremost, I am a social entrepreneur at heart and so is Mr. Biggs,” says Bigari over the phone during one of his regular commutes to and from Denver. “His motto is, ‘Be cool, do right.” Bigari says he’s trying to do just that by cleaning up the image of the Littleton fun center. “That location was notorious for drugs and fights and games and whatever. Ever since February, we’ve been re-crafting the place to be way more family friendly,” he says of his multi-million dollar remodel, which includes a new laser tag arena, a “Little Bigg Town” area for younger children, a high-speed go-cart track (“I am telling you this is not your dad’s go-cart track. The cars are made by a subsidiary of Ferrari.”) and lower prices -- $19.95 gets you all-day play.

Soon there may be additional Mr. Biggs locations popping up. Bigari’s planning a second, smaller version of his operation in Colorado Springs, and is eyeing Park Meadows too. All of it, he insists, is designed to help his charity, which is a clearinghouse of resources like childcare, car loans, education and bank accounts designed for the working poor. Bigari uses his fun centers to host America’s Family events, like annual Christmastime giveaways. “We are talking about eliminating poverty for working people in ten years,” he says. He has a long way to go: A new study reports that one in five Colorado residents doesn't make enough to cover basic needs.

But like everything he does, Bigari remains steadfastly optimistic about his quest – and usually that optimism pays off. His new Littleton enterprise has helped him get the attention of officials and social services providers in Jefferson County, who he’s using to build a new network of caregivers for his charity. He’s also making inroads in El Paso County, and Wal-Mart recently signed on to let its employees have access to the program. He’s finally getting the charity’s lending program off the ground, which he hopes will thrive as the state cracks down on payday and other predatory lenders.

The key to the program lies with one of his most famous inventions: His call center in Colorado Springs, whose operators are now connecting people with healthcare resources and lending advice, instead of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets. The call center gives people easy, instantaneous access to his network of caregivers, he says, a program he can scale indefinitely. He’s keeping the center financially solvent by plugging it back into the restaurant industry – though now he’s primarily taking calls not for quick-serve restaurants, but joints like small-scale pizza parlors. “There are a million restaurants around the country that are currently answering phones,” he says – and he believes they should allow his call center to answer those phones.

Bigari’s been so busy, he’s hardly had time to reminisce about his days working for the Golden Arches. While McDonald’s has been implementing its own version of drive-thru call centers in restaurants nationwide, so far Bigari’s former restaurants aren’t part of the program. “There are only twelve restaurants on the planet that can’t do the call center, and those seem to be my old ones,” he says with a laugh. He has heard some good news from McDonald’s, though: “I am told my drive through world record is safe and secure.” – Joel Warner