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How to (Nearly) Kill a Fast Food Chain [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

They once fought to become a big player in the world of fast food.  They were known for their hamburgers, fried chicken, roast beef, and fixin’s bar.  But after a major marketing mistake nearly killed the struggling chain, Roy Rogers is making a come back.

In 1968, the first Roy Rogers restaurant opened in Falls Church, Virginia owned by the Marriott Corporation.  Marriott is well known for their hotels, but they also owned a series of failing restaurants known as Jr. Hot Shoppes.

Marriott decided to make some major changes to stop the downfall.  The marketing team went into overdrive to rebrand the struggling chain.

They chose popular western cowboy Roy Rogers for the name, based on the Wild West’s reputation for good beef and down home cooking.  They acquired the proper licensing to use the name and image and began to expand. They opened several hundred locations in less than two years, mostly on the east coast.

Their menu concept was simple – burgers, roast beef, and fried chicken.

Roy Rogers at the Grover Cleveland Service Plaza, northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike.

All locations also feature a free Roy’s Fixins’ Bar – a small condiment bar full of lettuce, pickles, onions, ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, horseradish sauce, and more to allow hungry customers to dress their sandwiches any way they want. I love this feature, which includes handing out plastic cups to take your condiments to go if you are on the road.

As the 1970s rolled on, more new locations popped up. In 1975 the company made national headlines when their Fairfax, Virginia restaurant was robbed at gunpoint. Five employees were sent into the freezer and each shot in the head. Only one person survived.

The chain would recover and in 1980, would make a major step forward when it purchased Gino’s restaurants, adding 180 more stores. Gino’s was a former hamburger chain, which currently has only one store, a just reopened location in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

They continued to grow until 1989 when Marriott decided it was done with the fast food business.  They sold off most Roy Rogers, along with Howard Johnson’s and Bob’s Big Boy locations.  They wanted to focus on only operating restaurants in airports and at highway service plazas.

Rival fast food chain Hardee’s paid $365 million to scoop up the rights.  Hardee’s was operating mostly in the south and wanted to enter the mid-Atlantic market.  Hardee’s immediately converted 220 restaurants from Roy Rogers to their brand, keeping only the original fried chicken on the menu.

Hardee’s promoted new flame broiled burgers, but they were not the same as the original Roy Rogers’ and quickly failed.  The customers were outraged at the changes being shoved down their throats and large numbers of people stopped patronizing Roy Rogers.  Hardee’s quickly changed the restaurants back, but the damage had been done.

Ronald R. Powell, who had run the Roy Rogers chain in the 80s, was brought back to help restore its former glory.  A high profile advertising company from New York was also enlisted to promote the brand.  But, that advertising didn’t work either and the customers still stayed away.

In 1993, to try and make a step in the right direction, an experimental Roy Rogers was opened in Vienna, Virginia.  This new location featured third-pound burgers, BBQ sauce that customers served themselves with a ladle, and a new dining room with televisions.

The loss to the chain was too much to bear and in 1996, Hardee’s began to sell off the restaurants and many were converted to other rival chains.

HMS Host's Roy Rogers is one of the fast food offerings at the Allentown Service plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeastern Extension.

All the while, Marriott continued to operate locations in travel plazas and airports.  Marriott spun their restaurant division off into a company called HMS Host, which stands for Host Marriott Services.  They signed an agreement in 2003 to continue operating these locations.

While HMS Hosts locations were secure, the independent locations were not.  Sadly, in 2008 after years of struggling, Roy Rogers closed the remaining 2,500+ restaurants from Alaska to Maine.  Many states lost every location they had.  New York City, which once had 31, now only has 1 left. You can find it across the street from Penn Station.

I visited the Seventh Avenue location on a trip to the city in 2005 and saw one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my life.  A trip to the men’s room, found the entire place covered in human waste.  Not to be too graphic, but someone had smeared it across every surface… the door knob, the sink, everything.  A friend took a picture to prove it, but I have no desire to see it! I’ve never gone back to that restaurant.

For years, I loved stopping at their other locations; at the Blue Mountain Service Plaza and the Plainfield Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Those were always spotless and I usually got great service there.

Now, thanks to HMS Host, a number of new locations have opened!

Up and down New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, HMS Host has installed several brand new Roy Rogers in multiple service plazas, taking over space once occupied by KFC. The Atlantic City, Forked River, and Monmouth plazas all feature new restaurants. The Ocean View service plaza in South Jersey continues to operate a location there.  There are also several other locations along the New Jersey Turnpike.

That’s great!  The classic name and food is once again being served!

The bad – HMS Host charges outrageous prices for food served in the service plazas.  They know they have a captive audience, one that doesn’t want to get off the highway and pay another toll to get back on.  Some prices can be several dollars more for a sandwich than what you would pay at a regular free-standing location. The gouging isn’t just limited to the Roy Rogers locations; HMS Host rips people off with all the chains they operate, whether in an airport, mall, or along a highway.

A Roy Rogers roast beef sandwich.

The food offered on the menus is good, but not the best out there. The burgers are succulent and while I love the fact of putting on my own toppings, Burger King’s have more flavor. The same goes for one of their other signature items – the roast beef. Arby’s is just better.

Roy Rogers does serve several items unique to their menus.  They serve a Double R Burger, which contains a slice of ham and cheese. You can also skip the fries and go with such sides as baked beans, baked potatoes, cole slaw, and baked apples.  Most locations also serve breakfast.

When I’ve checked out some of these new locations, there is usually a line, and people are snapping up the food.  While being more expensive than others, they will satisfy your hunger on a long road trip.

I wish them well and hope to see them continue to grow.  They have a loyal following to and a brief look on their Facebook page has people asking for new locations across the country.  Currently, they only operate in 10 mid-Atlantic states.

THE 411

Name: Roy Rogers

What: US fast food chain


JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: If you’re on the road and see one coming up, give them a try. Be prepared to a pay more at one in a highway service plaza, but that is where most locations are now.

Other restaurants should also adopt the fixin’s bar concept. I love the fact of being able to dress my own sandwich. That would be impossible to do in a drive thru setting, but inside and at service plazas, this is absolutely great!

The company is also actively seeking new franchisees to open new standalone locations.

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