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Turnaround report: McDonald’s tries Italian food; Howard Johnson’s, Roy Rogers, Naugles plot comebacks

McDonald’s to try pasta, wood-fired pizzas

A landmark unit in the heart of the Orlando, Fla., tourist sprawl is being rebuilt as a 19,000-square-foot showcase store with a menu that includes pasta and wood-oven pizzas, according to a web report by TV station WKMG.

The restaurant is on International Drive, a.k.a. I-Drive, a strip of restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions and souvenir shops. It was built in 1976, and is a touchstone of bygone times to locals as well as a familiar option to tourists.

Local officials say the rebuilt outlet will be the “world’s largest entertainment McDonald’s.”

Who says all publicity is good?

Meanwhile, what’s not on McDonald’s menu has been snaring considerable attention online and in the mainstream media.

The existence of McDonald’s unofficial but well-known “secret” menu was confirmed this week. It’s a classic non-event: A manager told a citizen-journalist on Reddit that some units will accommodate such bizarre orders as the Land, Sea and Air (a burger stacked with a Filet-O-Fish and chicken patty inside a Big Mac bun) if you catch the right staffer at the right time. It’s merely treated as an extreme customized request, or what McDonald’s knows internally as a grill order.

That “news” is not exactly going to move the sales needle. A nearly concurrent buzz that started with a story in The New York Times ironically had to do with needles, as in the ones used by drug addicts.

The article and viral discussion that followed were focused on a unit in New York City that my friends and I knew as the heroin McDonald’s because so many of its customers were obviously users. There are a number of detox clinics and other services for addicts nearby, and some of the patients visit and hang out in the store.

But I take issue with the Times story. I haven’t felt unsafe in the unit, and its staff should be celebrated for performing at least to McDonald’s standards in sometimes trying circumstances. Indeed, I’ve always viewed the place as a safe haven compared with other businesses in the area.

Still, McDonald’s isn’t snaring the sort of positive publicity that benefits a mega-sized company in turnaround mode.

Vintage concepts plot a comeback

Recent weeks have brought a number of reports about once-dominant restaurant concepts that are years past their heyday but hell-bent on cultivating a new following.

A one-time dishwasher at a Howard Johnson’s recently re-opened the last restaurant bearing that name and the chain’s signature orange roof. Jon LaRock reportedly invested $200,000 to restore the place, in the summertime retreat of Lake George, N.Y., to the unique design sported by the brand while it reigned as the industry’s largest chain, ranked by units or sales. News reports say the place has become a destination for Baby Boomers who remember dining on such signatures as the Daily Double, Welsh Rarebit and all the fried clams you could eat.

Another onetime regional powerhouse, the 650-store Roy Rogers roast-beef sandwich concept, expanded this week with the opening of a store in New Jersey. That brings the chain, now owned by a former franchisee, to about 51 stores.  It was a gem in the hospitality portfolio of Marriott Corp., run by executives like future Pepsico CEO Steve Reinemund, until the parent of Hardee’s bought the brand for its real estate. Stores were converted to Hardee’s burger units, triggering a legendary customer rebellion that prompted Hardee’s to put the Roy Rogers name back on restaurants. The current owner, Plamondon Cos., is trying to recover some of that bygone glory.

Similar ambitions are harbored by a West Coast food blogger named Christian Ziebarth for the Naugles Mexican fast-food chain, a one-time competitor to Taco Bell that similarly enjoyed a cult following in southern California. Then Naugles was bought by Del Taco, which converted stores to its name.

Ziebarth has reportedly been advertising for staffers to open a new generation of Naugles in an undisclosed location in Orange County, Calif.

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