Saturday, August 11, 2018

We Like Roy! We Like Roy!




In discussing the history of the businesses I visit, I often find myself penning long-winded, soporific paragraphs about the mergers and acquisitions of the companies involved with the inception and decline of each restaurant and retail brand about which I see fit to write. One name seems to come up more often than others in these piles of plain prose. That name is Hardee’s.

Under the guidance of both Hardee’s Food Systems and later parent company Imasco, The Hardee’s operating territory was expanded by buying out and fully converting other fast food chains to the Hardee’s brand. Hardee’s strategy of acquiring and assimilating struggling regional chains is the reason you’re hard pressed to find anything resembling an operating Sandy’s, Burger Chef, or Dee’s Drive In today. Hardee’s assimilation strategy would come to an end in 1997 with their acquisition from Imasco by Carl’s Jr parent company CKE. Until then, every brand Hardee’s acquired was completely swallowed up, except for the one brand that Hardee’s regurgitated.

Like Hardee’s, Roy Rogers was made up of an amalgam of brands, and spent the first couple decades of its life under the Marriott corporate umbrella. The brand evolved from RoBee’s, a roast beef sandwich chain started by a group of Big Boy Franchisees in 1967, the same year Marriott acquired Big Boy. They would go on to acquire RoBee’s the following year. The name change came as the result of legal pressure from Arby’s citing similarities between the two restaurants. Big Boy founder and Marriott board member Bob Wian knew Roy Rogers personally and was able to convince the prolific western film actor to lend his name to the new, east coast-based enterprise. The first Roy Rogers opened in Falls Church, Virginia in 1968. The brand would expand its footprint along the way with the acquisition of the Baltimore-based Gino’s chain. When Roy Rogers absorbed Pappy Parker’s, in the early ‘70s their menu gained Pappy’s fried chicken and burgers making them competitive with the dominant fast food genres of the day. The chain would peak somewhere north of 600 locations thanks in part to a fiercely loyal clientele


Hardee’s, ever megalomaniacal, and seeking to expand their footprint into the Midatlantic region acquired Roy Rogers from Marriott in 1990, and converted company-owned locations to Hardee’s. Many converted locations retained fried chicken on their menus. The pre-Thickburger era Hardee’s Burgers that replaced the Roy Rogers burger line were not well received by customers, and Hardee’s failed to thrive in former Roy Rogers locations. Many of the Roy Rogers-Turned-Hardee's locations were hastily sold off to other brands in the ‘90s, leaving just 24 free standing Roy Rogers locations plus a handful of travel plaza locations in operation, all of which were owned by franchisees.

Pete Plamondon Sr. was one of those franchisees. He was previously a Marriott executive heavily involved with the Roy Rogers Brand before leaving the company and opening his own Roy Rogers in 1980. Having purchased Hardee’s and It’s legacy brands from Imasco in 1997, CKE restaurants had little interest in developing Roy Rogers, and sold the brand to Plamondon in 2002. Plamondon and later his sons Pete Jr. and Jim have been slowly expanding the brand’s presence ever since. Today, there are a total of 55 or so Roy Rogers locations in six states. I ate at the Cumberland, Maryland location a couple weeks back.



I had been on the road since 5:00 that morning, with nothing other than an orange scone from an Ohio Turnpike Panera to eat all day when I darkened the doorway of the Cumberland Roy Rogers at lunchtime. This was mostly by design. I had perused the Roy Rogers menu via their website a couple days before and marveled at the bounty of entrees and sides they had to offer. I wanted to be able to sample as much of the menu as possible, as this would be my only Roy Rogers stop. Since Roy Rogers began as a roast beef chain, I wanted to try the sandwich that started it all. I was also intrigued by the Double R Bar Burger, a cheeseburger topped with ham. There’s also a wide array of unique sides. I went with baked apples and macaroni and cheese. The uniqueness continued at the drink fountain where I was intrigued by Fanta Birch Beer on tap, the first non-fruit Fanta I’d encountered. It was lunchtime on a Sunday, and the place was packed, but the staff was more than capable of handling the crowd. The line moved quickly, and I had my order within a few minutes. 


Roast beef sandwich and Double R Bar Burger before fixin's...

Y'all git yer fixin's!

...and after

Since the early eighties, all Roy Rogers sandwiches are prepared with meat and cheese only. Patrons then dress their sandwiches with vegetables and condiments from “Roy’s Fixin's Bar.” (Burger Chef implemented a similar system around the same time, but instructed customers to order sandwiches “with or without,” either with the default toppings or plain to be dressed from the Burger Chef Works Bar.) Roy’s Fixins Bar has the typical burger toppings, plus a few unconventional selections like pico de gallo and banana peppers. The normal burger condiments are there too, plus the roast beef ones, sauces similar to, but presumably legally distinct from Arby’s Sauce and Horsey Sauce. I load my sandwiches with my preferred accoutrements, and sit down to eat. Both sandwiches seem to be high quality. Unlike Arby’s and Rax processed mystery meat, my roast beef sandwich is actually made from intact pieces of cow, sliced off an actual roast. It reminds me of the sandwiches I’d make out of leftover Sunday roasts when I was a kid. Likewise, the burger has a pleasant steaky quality, but it kind of overwhelms the ham. The sides were perfectly adequate and novel, if a bit incongruous with the sandwiches. I’ll have to order chicken and some more of the sides on my next trip. I want to experience the bulk of the menu here eventually. 

Shiny new building exterior

Thoroughly modern menu

Seasonal limited time menu item

The building appears to be a newer construction, and feels like a modern fast food joint with up to date signage and menu boards. A color palate with a blend of reds and oranges coupled with modern architecture gives the place a modern feel with nods the the brand’s late 1960s heritage. There are posters from Roy Rogers movies all over the walls, and various western themed elements to acknowledge the chain’s original spokesman. Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a lifesize cardboard cutout of longtime Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. in the lobby, plus a few posters of him scattered around the property. He’s apparently Roy Rogers spokesman these days, which is a bit confusing, but somewhat necessary considering Roy Rogers, the person, has been dead for two decades. Still, there’s a plaque with a likeness of Roy Rogers by the order counter with some corporate ad copy about great tasting food and service with a smile. Although the place is busy, the lobby is clean and is a perfectly pleasant place to be despite the crowds. I have no idea if all the surviving Roy Rogers locations are this well run, but I’m inclined to think they are considering this is my first every Roy Rogers experience. Everything about this location has left me intrigued and wanting to experience more. I may have to plan a Ponderosa-esque trek through the Tidewater to experience several meals at different Roy Rogers locations one of these days. 

Now here's Roy...


...and his buddy Cal

Being swallowed up by Hardee’s meant certain death for every other fast food brand that met that fate, but Roy Rogers was able to escape the fate of complete assimilation by the Hardee’s hivemind and come out the other side with a fast food concept that feels both novel and still thoroughly modern despite minimal changes over the years. Whether you chalk up the survival of the brand to Roy Rogers fans not accepting Hardee’s moving in on their territory, the dedication of the Plamondon family, Hardee’s spreading themselves too thin, or some combination thereof, I’m excited that Roy Rogers still exists and seems to be thriving within its regional market. In fact, it really only has broken chain status because the chain is a tenth of its former size. All other indicators show that the Roy Rogers chain is anything but broken. It would be great to see a few more of my beloved endangered fast food brands enjoy similar resurgences, and I’d be overjoyed to be telling a similar story about the comeback of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s in a few years.

Speaking of, the new Ritzy’s in Columbus is set to open any day now, run by chain founder Graydon Webb and his sons Corey and Bryan. I’ll be making regular trips there once they’re open. If Roy Rogers is any indication, a father-sons team reviving a beloved family fast food business is a winning combination that has the potential to be a regional hit with both old and new fans. I sincerely hope that my acquaintances, the Webbs, have all the success and more with Ritzy’s that the Plamondons have had with Roy Rogers. Like Roy Rogers, G.D. Ritzy’s offers a unique, high quality experience at a reasonable price and is just as deserving of a successful revival, with or without Cal Ripken tagging along. 



11 comments:

  1. Your blog is awesome! Totally binged on it today.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I try to update frequently, so be sure to check back often.

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  2. Really loving this blog. Roy Rogers brings back memories of stopping on the Ohio Turnpike when I was a kid. I was obsessed with those roast beef sandwiches!

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    1. Thanks for reading! It's definitely unlike any fast food roast beef sandwich I've experienced before, much higher quality than Arbys or Rax.

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  3. I'm thankful that Roy's has opened locations near to me, as it means I've had the pleasure of stopping at the Roy's in Franklin NJ several times while working in the area. (I've also stopped at the Flemington one a couple times.) Irritatingly, both Franklin and Flemington are basically the same distance from me in opposite directions, and they haven't opened one up closer to me (there's an Arby's here in Hackettstown/Mansfield that could be good).

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    1. Consider yourself lucky. I would love to be closer to a Roy Rogers.

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  4. I'd always wondered about this oddball restaurant in Cumberland (an intriguing city in itself). For about 15 years it's been an occasional stop for me & my family traveling the length of I-68. The Hardee's connection was clear from the start, but the chicken & birch beer hinted at a larger story. Thanks for sharing what you discovered about that story!
    I can vouch for the chicken personally, by the way.

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    1. Thanks for reading it. I still need to get back out that way to try the chicken, but I'm looking forward to it.

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  5. I want to thank you for completely killing any productivity I used to have at work! Love the blog, keep up the good work! As for Roy's, when I was growing up in the early 80s there was a Roy Rogers across the road from a McDonalds. We always chose Roy's over McDonadlds. Roy's was far superior to anything the arches had to offer. It was a very sad day when our Roy's became a Hardees...very briefly as no one I know ever set food inside it!

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    1. Hiya. Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're enjoying it. That seems to be the narrative of many Roy Rogers locations that were converted to Hardee's.

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