It wasn’t until recently that I realized people actually ate Roy Rogers’ sandwiches. This is not a knock on the 50-year-old East Coast fast-food chain — it’s just the opposite. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, my family was completely devoted to Roy Rogers’ fried chicken and its accompanying sides, the go-to meal both close to home (in the restaurant at our local mall) and when we were driving somewhere new (inside rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike). It simply never occurred to me that faced with the option of a Roy’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuit meal that anyone would actually choose something that comes between two buns. But that’s precisely what has always made the chain — named, of course, for the Hollywood cowboy — appealing.
Roy Rogers’ varied menu — a mash-up of fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches, and baked beans sitting alongside the more familiar burgers and fries — embraced the “something for everyone” approach. Ask fans of “Roy’s” which of the three they prefer, and it’s likely they’ll fall firmly into one of those chicken/roast beef/burger camps, creating a fierce and sometimes competitive sense of loyalty.
But by the mid-1990s, Roy Rogers started to fade from diners’ consciousness. In 1990, Missouri-based Hardee’s bought the chain for $365 million and eventually sold most locations to other brands. Stores dwindled from nearly 650 during Roy Rogers’ peak to just 54 locations today. In the meantime, competitors like Arby’s and Chick-fil-A have raked in $3.5 billion and $4.3 billion in sales, respectively, in 2015 alone.
Now, though, to the delight of some of its long-suffering fans, the brand is attempting a comeback. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Plamondon family — whose patriarch helped launch Roy Rogers back in 1968 — holds the keys to new expansion plans. In recent years, they’ve opened several new locations, at which guests line up overnight for the chance to win free food and relive their nostalgia with local press. “When we open up again people are like, ‘Oh my God, Roy Rogers is back. I used to love that as a kid. I’ve got to go back,’” says Roy Rogers co-president Jim Plamondon, who owns the brand with his brother Peter. “Now, the challenge is that we have to deliver on that nostalgia, because nostalgia’s a little bit of a double-edged sword. People only remember the good.”
Roy Rogers the actor and singer (birth name: Leonard Franklin Slye) was in his late fifties when he lent his name to a new fast-food chain from the Marriott Corporation, best known today for its namesake hotels. Few know that Marriott actually got its start in the restaurant business with a chain of roadside diners and drive-ins called Hot Shoppes. By the late 1960s, the company was looking to expand its portfolio and purchased several restaurant brands, including RoBee’s roast beef chain, which was based in Indiana. But when Marriott was unable to secure the national naming rights to RoBee’s, it was another fast-food titan who would give the concept its now-famous name.
Marriott chairman of the board Bill Marriott Jr. wrote in a 2013 blog post that Bob’s Big Boy founder Bob Wain was the first to bring up the idea of a licensing deal with the “King of the Cowboys.” Wain “was on our board of directors and suggested we contact Roy Rogers as he had a national reputation and he might rent us his name,” Marriott writes.
The deal wasn’t out of character for Rogers: Over the course of his career, the entertainer appeared in advertisements for foods like Sugar Crisp cereal, Nestle’s Quik chocolate drink, and Seven Seas salad dressing. Throughout the ’70s, Rogers and his equally famous wife, Dale Evans, would made appearances at Roy Rogers restaurant openings, posing for photos and signing autographs. And naturally, the brand played up the cowboy affiliation with slogans like “Look for the sign of real Western quality” and “Say ‘howdy’ to fresh food.”
According to the Plamondons, Roy Rogers’ unique “holy trio” menu set-up of chicken, burgers, and roast beef sandwiches, sells equally across the three partisan lines. Ask who they consider competitors to be today, and the answer is everyone from KFC to Arby’s to Wendy’s to Panera and Chipotle, the latter two “in the fast-casual world.” Like most other fast-food brands, ordering at Roy Rogers occurs at a counter (unless, of course, you’re patronizing certain service plaza locations, which function in a more grab-and-go cafeteria style, complete with plastic tray — with the lens of hindsight, the latter provided a thrilling prospect for a kid finally allowed to select their own sleeve of curly fries from underneath a heat lamp).
Either set-up, though, usually involves access to the brand’s now-famous Fixin’s Bar, considered a fast-food anomaly. While burgers and sandwiches at other chains usually arrived pre-topped, Roy Rogers opened up the toppings to customers with a small counter loaded with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and other condiments. Talk about Roy Rogers today, and nearly everyone has a story about foraging mini “salads” from the bar, for free, supposedly under the noses of Roy’s employees.
“Frankly, we were headfirst into salad bars as a chain,” says Peter Plamondon, Sr., the father of current owners Jim and Pete Jr. and the former head of Marriott’s restaurant division. Salad bars at steakhouses and more casual dining chains first emerged in America during the 1960s, pioneering the idea of do-it-yourself appetizers. But “that became a very difficult product to manage in fast food,” Peter says of the original Roy’s salad bar. “First of all, you've got people who are going through the drive-thru. That's not even open to them. Secondly, the salad bar was hard for us to control.”
The elder Plamondon notes that many customers would load up at the full salad bar without actually paying for it — the phenomenon still occurs today, but to a lesser extent. “We decided to take the salad bars out and convert them into [what we called] a mega Fixin’s Bar,” Jim says.
The younger Plamondon jokes that his dad’s line, heard many times while he was growing up, was: “We didn't necessarily want the customers to use [the Fixin’s Bar] too much because it costs money." But he says the brand’s current philosophy embraces the value add, which was later employed by brands like Olive Garden (with its unlimited breadsticks). “We took an opposite approach and said, ‘You know what? We're going to make it larger and really encourage the customer to use it even more,’" Jim says. “They can pile on as many tomatoes or as many slices of onions, or what have you, as they want. That's okay. That's the value that we provide.”
(For some franchise owners, building the mega-bar comes with a hefty price tag of upwards of $35,000.)
Jim and his brother grew up in Roy Rogers restaurants: Jim particularly remembers, as a kid, loving the apple crisp, a dessert of baked apples, cinnamon crisp topping, cheese, and icing (it’s still on the menu). After the sale of Roy’s to Hardee’s in 1990, the elder Plamondon held onto the 15 franchises he personally owned, which he started accumulating after leaving Marriott in 1979.
At the time of the Hardee’s sale, hundreds of franchisees like Plamondon Sr. refused to convert their Roy Rogers restaurants into Hardee’s. As Ronald D. Michman and Edward M. Mazze chronicle in their book The Food Industry Wars, “Market research conducted after the acquisition confirmed that consumers in the Northeast — where Hardee’s had no brand recognition — preferred the Roy Rogers name and wanted it back.” Several converted outlets switched back; but by then, the message was muddled. In the mid-’90s, Hardee’s began selling off its Roy’s locations, mostly, as Jim Plamondon says, for the real estate: Many of those restaurants became McDonald’s or Boston Market locations. The remaining franchise owners, who numbered in the low hundreds in the late ‘90s, were left with their “new status as lone rangers,” punned the Washington Post.
In 2002, the Plamondons bought the rights, trademarks, and proprietary secrets associated with Roy Rogers to own the brand’s franchise system outright. Jim estimates there were roughly 75 restaurants still open at the same of their acquisition. As the Plamondons wrestled with the brand, some franchisees who held agreements were “eased out” of the system as the brothers focused on their corporate-owned locations. It wasn’t until “about three or four years ago that we decided as a strategy to get back into franchising,” Jim says.
Like every other brand out there, Roy’s has made some upgrades explicitly designed to attract millennial diners: The brown-hued interiors of old have been replaced by “exposed beam ceilings, bold color schemes, and fancy-looking floors,” as QSR reported last year, with some locations even offering communal tables. According to QSR, “influential ‘street teams’ of 20-something fans are even paid to show up at Millennial-friendly gatherings like local high school events and street festivals to spread the good word about Roy Rogers.”
But it’s more likely that any Roy’s opening fervor today is fueled not by millennials, but by former customers feeding their sense of nostalgia. In summer 2015, a New Jersey opening drew drive-thru lines that backed up onto the highway, with guests saying they’d driven more than 30 miles to get their fix: Happily, many reported that their favorite dishes tasted “just the same” as they remembered. Elsewhere, op-ed authors urged Roy Rogers to open in their cities: “My friends and I used to take road trips to Roy’s locations... for Gold Rush chicken sandwiches... and holsters of fries, simply because we loved the place from when we were young.”
It seems to be working. Last year, Roy Rogers opened six franchised restaurants on the East Coast. This July, another will debut in Pennsylvania, and Jim hints that more locations are being discussed for New Jersey and New York. Though its connection to highway service areas is likely why many feel fondly about the brand — roast beef sandwiches becoming intertwined with happy road trip memories — it’s not the main focus.
Though the brand has been through a lot, it’s still “Alive and Kickin.” “When we describe Roy Rogers, we describe it as quality, variety, and choice,” Jim says. “The quality: the roast beef as an example, it’s USDA choice beef. The variety is this roast beef, fried chicken, and burgers. We call it the holy trio. Nobody does all three. Then, the choice is that Fixin’s Bar that the customer gets to choose what he or she wants on their burger or on their grilled chicken sandwich. They really just love that. That's what sets us apart.”
Erin DeJesus is Eater’s deputy editor.
Editor: Daniela Galarza