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Marketing

Is 50 the new 20 for Roy Rogers Restaurants?

The quick-service chain named after a long-gone performer is aiming for fresh life, with a new spokesman and a new growth steward.

The restaurant junkyard is packed with concepts named after entertainment celebrities, from Pat Boone’s Din-O-Mat to Kenny Rogers Roasters, Mickey Rooney’s Weenie World and Muhammad Ali’s Rotisserie Chicken.

But at age 50, the operation affiliated with Leonard Franklin Slye is still chugging along, selectively adding stores within its Eastern stronghold. It even has a new celebrity endorser, though the current owner isn’t about to strip the brand of Slye’s better-known stage name: Roy Rogers.

The movie, TV and music star died 20 years ago, but the chain that licensed the Hollywood cowboy’s name remains a strong performer in the markets served by its 53 stores, some of which are still operated by their original franchisees. The quick-service units average $1.6 million in annual sales, a tribute less to the celebrity connection than to the upscale touches that have always been distinctions of the brand, says Roy Rogers Restaurants co-owner and Co-president Jim Plamondon.

The concept’s signature is still a sandwich made from a slow-cooked steamship round of roast beef, carved fresh for each order.  Sides include baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked apples, a fruit cup, baked beans and and mac 'n cheese. Burgers are served undressed so patrons can customize their sandwich at a fresh-toppings bar. 

 “It always represented a cut above fast food—it was fast casual before fast casual even existed,” says Plamondon. “Since the 1980s, the core menu hasn’t changed much—we call it the holy trio of roast beef, burgers and chicken. We were the only brand doing all of it.”

And still is, he stresses. He and his partner, brother Pete Plamondon Jr., have just hired a veteran of Dunkin’ Brands to capitalize on that distinction and accelerate expansion.  Jeremy Biser has moved over as EVP after overseeing 8,000 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins restaurants outside of the United States.

The Western-themed chain, known to fans as Roy’s, also has a new celebrity speaking on its behalf: Former Baltimore Oriole and MLB Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

The irony: Ripken played for one team his whole career. Roy’s bounced from party to party until it ended up in the charge of the Plamondon family.

The concept was launched in 1968 by Marriott Corp., one of the industry’s biggest operators at the time because of its Hot Shoppes and Big Boy family restaurant chains. Roy’s was its experiment with quick service, and it worked.

The chain grew to 648 stores under Marriott’s tutelage. But the company decided in the mid-1980s to intensify its focus on hotels while also looking to launch a family buffet concept called Allie’s. Roy’s was put on the block and acquired by Imasco, owners of the regional Hardee’s burger chain. Hardee’s, known for its biscuits and strong breakfast business, was concentrated in the Southeast. Roy’s did well at dinner with its fried chicken, and was located primarily north of Hardee’s turf.

“They bought it for the real estate,” says Plamondon.

What sounded like a beautiful marriage on paper proved a nightmare. A number of Roy’s units were converted into Hardee’s, and a fair-sized group of others were sold to Wendy’s. Remaining Roy’s units had their images blurred by the addition of Hardee’s biscuits, while some Hardee’s stores added Roy Rogers-brand fried chicken.

The move triggered a revolt from Roy’s cult-like fans, who demanded a return of their brand. Imasco obliged, further confusing customers.

Then Imasco decided to exit the business. Roy Rogers was acquired in 2002 by Pete Plamondon, Jim’s dad, who had been working for Marriott when Roy’s was launched. He knew it was a gem. He left Marriott in 1979 as EVP of the hotel company’s restaurant operations and became a Roy’s franchisee a year later.

Pete remained with the chain through the Imasco years, bringing Jim and his other son, Pete Jr., into the business. The brand would shrink to about 70 units, and the second generations of Plamondons were so discouraged that they diversified into the hotel business.

Yet the concept plugged along, serving hardcore fans in the key markets of Maryland and New Jersey. The brand also secured locations in rest stops along several interstate highways through a franchise deal with HMS Host, a former Marriott division.

In 1998, the elder Plamondon decided to exit the business. Jim and Pete Jr. stepped up to buy it, knowing some refurbishing was needed. “We needed to get back the brand’s standards,” recalls Jim. “We reduced the number of restaurants down to the 40s,” about 15 of which they operated. Jim focused on the restaurants while Pete Jr. managed the hotel side of their business.

The emphasis was on showcasing what had made Roy Rogers restaurants different from Day One: “Quality, variety and choice,” says Jim. “It has allowed it to grow and stay relevant.”

Roy’s has added about six restaurants in the last three years. With Biser on board, the plan calls for adding that many per year, all in the mid-Atlantic area where the brand is best known.

Roy’s will remain true to its roots, but it’s not oblivious to what’s happening in the quick-service sector, says Plamondon. It branched into breakfast long ago, during the Hardee’s years, and some stores already boast drive-thrus. The concept has looked at self-ordering kiosks, “But it’s not a high priority,” he says.

The addition of curbside pickup is already in the works, and Roy’s now has an app, he adds.

The challenge, he suggests, is marketing a brand to potential new customers when you’re competing for attention with the likes of McDonald’s or Wendy’s.

The franchisor is already stepping up its use of social media, and the affiliation with Ripken will likely be a breakthrough, Plamondon says. “We felt he represented a way for us to stand apart from the competition. How can you be heard? Partnering up with a Hall of Famer with a record of his own.”

Ripkin has explained that he teamed up with the Plamondons because of a longtime familiarity with Roy Rogers. His mother loved the brand’s namesake, while he grew up eating its roast beef sandwiches.

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