When Big Ed’s closed its doors last September, students, staff and alumni alike were shocked. There was no notice given, only a piece of paper tacked to the door stating, “Sorry, restaurant closed.” Established in 1968 by Edward Robinson, Big Ed’s was a hot spot for the University of Utah community, providing unique dishes like their famous “Gawd Awful.”
In a recent survey conducted by the Daily Utah Chronicle, more than half of students, staff and alumni enjoyed the popular dive.
U Alumni Megan Gallaugher was especially fond of the homey diner: “I look back on it with a lot of nostalgia. I don’t remember the food or service being groundbreaking, but it was cheap and fun — exactly what I wanted as a college student.”
U Faculty member Jennifer Reed also visited Big Ed’s regularly. “I had a standing date there every Tuesday for lunch for 20 years.”
Despite the hope of the Robinson family to re-open Big Ed’s and restore it to its former glory, popular coffee shop Publik Coffee will be taking over the space. This will be Publik Coffee’s fifth location, according to their Instagram and Twitter. They will pay homage to their predecessor by naming it “Publik Ed’s.”
Over half of the participants in the survey were excited for this change, even those who were partial to the original restaurant. Reed said, “As long as there is a place to get eggs and beer near the U, I’m happy.”
Though some looked back with fond memories of Big Ed’s, others were not impressed with the food or state of the little hole-in-the-wall. U Student Amanda Babcock commented that Big Ed’s had “crap food in a dirty restaurant,” and is excited for Publik to take over because it would be more “modern and likely cleaner.”
Missy Greis, owner and operator of Publik Coffee was surprised Big Ed’s closed so suddenly, and hadn’t thought about taking over the space. “I had actually seen the story about it being vacated last fall, but hadn’t considered it as a location for Publik,” she said.
When property owner Hayden Peterson of Landmark Property and Development reached out to her about taking over the space, she was intrigued. “It was immediately interesting to everyone on the Publik team — the ability to have our coffee and brand in the University neighborhood with beer? It’s a different concept for us, but one we’ve always talked about doing.”
Construction started mid-March, and Greis hoped to keep the nostalgia of the space alive by preserving the building as much as possible. Unfortunately, this was less than possible.
“Much of the space was out of compliance with respect to building code,” Greis said, “[like] the entrance and the bathrooms, for example. There were also some health department requirements that needed to be addressed.”
Once Greis saw the extent of the problems with the building, she was surprised at the extent of damage the building had undergone. “We had hoped to retain the vibe of what ‘was’ and that was somewhat dive-y — but when we opened up a few of the walls it became a different conversation about what was salvageable.”
The entire space will be renovated, with new additions to make the space more open and viable to customers. “Once you ‘fix’ one wall, it’s a bit of a domino effect. We also wanted to add some natural light and some additional seating via a patio, both of which we’ve done.”
Greis said the new renovations will make the space more Publik-friendly. “Those two things definitely improved the space, but they also changed the character and the feel entirely. It’s still small, [with] just 24 seats inside.”
Even with these huge changes to the space, Greis said there will still be pieces of Big Ed’s customers will recognize. “We salvaged the chairs and the church pew benches and the table bases. The stolen “Big Ed’s” sign was returned two weeks ago and will have a prominent place on the wall.”
But the similarities don’t stop there. Greis plans to have a few dishes that remind customers of the good old days. “Our menu has a Publik spin, but gives a gentle nod to a few items Big Ed’s was known for, like the ‘Gawd Awful’. Espresso and coffee are our thing and obviously our Publik Coffee menu will be at the forefront, but we will gladly pull multiple espresso shots for anyone yearning for what was the 10 shot ‘Double Fist’.”
One thing that won’t be the same, however, is the mural that was painted on the side of Big Ed’s. “We were so bummed to have to take down that mural, but the stucco and the interior framing behind it had deteriorated, causing the structural integrity of the roof to be in question, so that wall was almost entirely rebuilt … We did, however, photograph the Big Ed’s mural and the image will return to the space, just in a different way.”
Greis said not to worry though, as a new mural will be in the works soon, painted by local artist Elaina Court. “It’s coffee-related and you’ll have to wait and see it!”
Bringing this dream to life took much longer than Greis anticipated. She had to jump through many hoops before construction could begin. “We had hoped to be open before school let out in May, [but] 14 weeks of city permitting pushed us to late summer. It was incredibly frustrating when you consider the space is less than 900 square feet and we have no change of use.”
Thankfully, she wasn’t alone in the task: “Our architects, Lloyd Architects, and our contractor, Evergreene Construction (who were both a part of the other Publik locations) managed to get us through the process … We’ll be open before the end of July.”
Despite the grueling process, Greis is excited for this new Publik location to open its doors. “We’re just really excited to serve a great burger, some local beers and, of course, our coffee and housemade pastr[ies] that people have grown to love at our other locations.”
Greis hopes that this new Publik location will both honor the memory of Big Ed’s as well as create a cool place for students, staff and alumni to come relax. “We appreciate that Big Ed’s closing was like a punch to the gut for so many people, and we know we have big shoes to fill. Our intention is to bring great coffee and a simply, fresh and quality menu to the space.”
As for the future of Publik Coffee, Greis said she hasn’t planned any further expansion. “We’ve actually never outwardly sought out new locations. But sometimes, like our holiday “pop up” at City Creek this past winter, we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to open in a cool spot — Publik Ed’s is just like that. It’s a great location and a special neighborhood … when it’s right, it’s right.”