With a 1950s malt-shop theme, the Johnny Rockets burger chain is a quintessentially American restaurant concept. Yet today, the majority of its 351 units are located outside the United States, and the tilt toward overseas markets is intensifying as the chain pursues its most ambitious international expansion drive in its 33 years.
“Sometimes people don’t like our politics, but they do like American stuff,” says Stephen O’Connor, who joined the West Coast-born operation in May as SVP of international business to spearhead the push abroad.
The chain has already opened 15 international units this year, raising the total to 178 restaurants in 26 countries, with eight more set to open before Jan. 1. “I think we’ll be doing 30 stores next year, if not more,” says O’Connor, who has previously worked on the overseas expansion of TGI Fridays and Ruby Tuesday.
The key driver, he says, has been the slab of Americana that a Johnny Rockets delivers. Its menu abounds in American staples, and it features nostalgic cues to its heritage such as jukeboxes, soda fountains, neon signs and peaked soda-jerk-style hats. “This is a great platform for delivering an American experience,” says O’Connor.
Some concessions have been made to local realities. The labor situation in some parts of the world is no better for restaurants than it is in the U.S., so many of the new Rockets branches feature the modified service typical of a fast-casual operation, instead of the table and counter service that’s provided in the States.
Still, there’s an emphasis on service, a potent differentiator when many overseas operations are striving to take human interaction out of the restaurant process, according to O’Connor. He notes that a number of chains have already opened prototypes in Europe where guests order and eat without interacting with a human staff member.
The design is also being tweaked in a nod to foreign tastes. “We have started working on having more of a progressive look, to make it look a little different,” says O’Connor. “We’re aiming for more of an upscale look, putting more wood into it.”
The rest of the world is also ahead of the U.S. in embracing restaurant delivery, a function often of the weather and traffic. In the Middle East, for instance, “We have stores doing 45% to 50% of their sales from delivery,” says O’Connor. “We’ve been able to tool for it, engineer for it, and build the box to accommodate it.”
The international push is not without its challenges. In addition to labor issues, there’s a newfound entrepreneurship on the part of local operators. “The biggest headwind for any brand right now is you’re seeing a lot of local developers coming up with their own brands,” O’Connor explains.
There’s also the omnipresent pressure of finding the right local partner. “If you get the right franchise group, you’re in heaven. If you’re not lucky, it can typically lock up development in a territory for years,” O’Connor continues.
Rockets leans toward smaller-scale operations rather than giant overseas players such as Alshaya and Alsea. It currently has deals with 39 local franchisees.
Its international operations are fairly evenly spread across the globe. Stores have recently opened in Rome and Latin America.
The first Johnny Rockets was opened by Ronn Teitelbaum in 1985 on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. His goal was to create an authentic malt shop of the 1940s and '50s. It featured 20 stools and a counter, and few if any indications it was headed for a global stage.