The story of the Roy Rogers restaurant business reads like an old western. The chain was once prosperous, but then fortune fell against it and it went nearly extinct. Now, it’s making a comeback, and a new restaurant in Brick is part of it.
You might remember the popular fast-food restaurants from the 1980s and 1990s, when the company had over 600 locations nationwide. In the 1990s, Hardee’s bought the chain from Marriott and tried to convert all the locations to Hardee’s restaurants.
FOOD CHOICES: Where to find food trucks at the Jersey Shore
LOCAL BUSINESS: Il Giardinello restaurant owners look for buyer
“That failed about 20 minutes after they started converting restaurants,” said Jim Plamondon, who is co-president of the revitalized Roy Rogers along with his brother, Pete Jr.
Hardee’s converted about 50 or 60 restaurants, Plamondon said, but they weren’t as successful as the Roy Rogers outlets had been, and they attempted to change them back into Roy Rogers, but the damage had been done.
“They sold the locations off again to other brands,” Plamondon said. “They sold the locations in New York and New Jersey to Burger King and Wendy’s.”
Eventually, the chain of 648 restaurants had dwindled to about 75 by the time the Plamondons took over the business.
DINING: See new restaurants that have opened nearby
DINING: Take a Fast Break at this Toms River diner
Prior to owning the Roy Rogers name, Jim Plamondon was an attorney, while his brother was in commercial real estate. But the family history with the company goes way back.
Their father, Pete Sr., worked for Marriott, which started the Roy Rogers brand at its inception in 1968, running the Roy Rogers division. Marriott executives wanted a restaurant with an “all-American environment that catered to the tastes and echoed the values of hard working Americans,” according to the company history. So, they licensed the name of TV and movie singing cowboy Roy Rogers.
In 1980 Pete Sr. left Marriott and operated Roy Rogers franchises in Maryland.
JERSEY SHORE FOOD: What makes Jersey Shore restaurant food taste so good?
SUPERMARKETS: Wall Whole Foods beats expectations
Plamondon and his brother bought the Roy Rogers name and franchise system from Hardee’s parent company, Imasco, in 2002. Of the chain’s 75 remaining restaurants at the time, about 15 were corporate-operated, or directly overseen by the company. Eventually the number of restaurants dwindled to about 40 after many franchisees, who are independent operators, left the business due to expiring lease agreements, Plamondon said.
“(Our father) never asked us to do this. We went off and did other things on our own, but we saw his success as an entrepreneur and as a franchisee,” Plamondon said.
At first, Plamondon and his brother focused on Roy Rogers’ corporate locations, and are located near the company headquarters in Frederick, Maryland. Of the company’s 53 restaurants today, 24 are corporate.
FREEHOLD RACEWAY MALL: Primark coming to Freehold Sears; what is it?
MALL FOOD: What’s on the menu at local food courts?
About two years ago, Plamondon said they looked to franchising to grow the business after customers started requesting Roy Rogers restaurants in markets outside of Maryland.
“Those calls and requests have come from places that aren’t right here,” he said. “The best way to address consumer demand (for locations) not in the immediate vicinity is through franchises.”
In the last year, four Roy Rogers locations have opened in New Jersey in Brick, Edison, Flemington and Franklin, joining an existing restaurant in Pine Beach and sparking what many are calling a comeback.
“I’m not sure if I would consider their new restaurants a ‘comeback’ per se, but they are still around and kicking and opening a few stores this year and are focusing on further expansion, which definitely points to a turnaround goal despite negative sales growth in 2015,” said Rachel Royster, an analyst with restaurant research firm Technomic.
SMALL BUSINESS: Sickles Market expands into Red Bank
BURGERS: Are fast casual burger chains better than homemade?
People aren’t complaining. When the Edison restaurant opened earlier this year, customers camped outside in anticipation, Plamondon said.
“Glad to see you guys coming back with locations more than just at Turnpike and Parkway rest stops,” one Facebook user said on a post announcing the new Brick location, which opened recently.
“They never should have closed the Roy Rogers location in Atlantic City, NJ. Sure, the rest stop locations are fine, but I’d rather have Roy Rogers local like the good ole days!” another said.
STORE CLOSING: Brick’s Jersey Paddler closes after 50 years
SECRET FOOD: Does McDonald’s really have a secret menu?
“A lot of people … really know the brand because they remember it from when they were in their teens and 20s. I suppose there is a great nostalgic pull towards brand,” Plamondon said. “The brand was never broken, never failing, it was these real estate deals.”
The last year has been a “whirlwind” for the company as far as new business is concerned. This year the company opened six new restaurants, a number they want to maintain moving forward. In the last decade, the company maybe opened a restaurant or two, or none at all, in a year.
Plamondon wants the brand to grow intelligently – that means finding the right locations and franchisees and curbing growth to a reasonable limit.
Instead of growing nationally, Plamondon wants to grow the company’s presence in the mid-Atlantic region, where the name is familiar to consumers.
FAST FOOD: Chick Fil-A is America’s favorite fast food
“We can manage it better. … It’ll give us the best opportunity to be able to maintain our standards,” he said. “We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg in New Jersey. There are a ton of towns we could go into.”
He foresees opening four to six new locations every year – in five years, that could give the chain 25 new restaurants.
The modest pace allows the company to seek out ideal locations – primarily free-standing buildings with drive-throughs – and dedicated franchisees.
LETTER: Fast-food workers deserve fair treatment
The company’s next moves might include opening in North and South Carolina and Virginia and West Virginia. In time, restaurants may open in states as far as Florida and Ohio.
“The company has a ways to go yet to be back where they were, but it looks like the owners are starting to make steps in the right direction,” Royster said.
Devin Loring; 732-643-4035; firstname.lastname@example.org