Web Exclusive | January 2017 | By Bryan Reesman

Johnny Rockets' Evolution is Nearly Complete

The classic chain says it's nearly two-thirds of the way done with its brand relaunch, which courts to millennials as well as devoted long-time fans.
Johnny Rockets' new One Penn Location will court a captivated audience near Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. Johnny Rockets

When QSR visited the new Johnny Rockets location at One Penn Plaza adjacent to New York's bustling Penn Station, there was a brief but pleasant calm before the storm. It was 10:15 a.m. on January 7 and, within a few minutes, the 22-seat, 1,100-foot square location faced a continual blitz of customers for a solid hour as the first 100 eager consumers received a complimentary meal.

This was the 35th Johnny Rockets location to open with a reimagined, modern design, which has toned down the classic diner vibe. It has a brick wall motif, caged lighting, and includes some larger communal dining tables that appeal to millennials. The slightly tweaked red and white company logo looks familiar but has gone from a circular backdrop to a soda-bottle-type shape, and has been stripped of blue and yellow. The company says the latter associated the brand with fast-food burger places.

While Johnny Rockets started in a full-service vein, it has recently transitioned into the quick-serve arena as well. Known for being a '50s-style burger joint with a diner feeling, Johnny Rockets continues evolving into what James Walker, CFE, president of global operations and development, calls multiple prototypes. There is the classic full-service approach. Select full-serve locations, in venues like Knott's Berry Farm and Mohegan Sun, feature singing and dancing waiters. Smaller, 700-square-foot, counter-service stores can be found in food courts, and there are now also express locations, like the Penn Station spot, which represent the brand’s "Diner 2.0" model.

Walker says that Diner 2.0 has four elements. There is the design, decor, and new logo. There's a high-efficiency kitchen. There are more premium guest touch points, including upgrades from salt-and-pepper shakers to grinders, elevated wire baskets and coffee cups, insulated shake cups, better napkins, and improved uniforms and hats. Plus there’s an effective marketing relaunch, which is driven more by social media than paid advertising thanks to guests who are "very emotional about the brand.”

Jim Hicks, senior vice president of domestic operations, walked QSR through the kitchen area, proudly showcasing the high-efficiency components. There is a Taylor clam shell grill that can make up to a dozen burgers with a cooking time of only 65 seconds, rather than the three-and-a-half minutes he says a standard grill needs. The dark brown sear on the burgers locks in flavor. The Merco warmer "is made for holding hot, fried foods," Hicks says. "We discovered we can hold bacon in there, heat it up in about 30 minutes. We cook it most of the way, about 90 percent, and put it in this holding unit here that has hot air over the top. It keeps the product hot and it's much better than heat lamps on the top of the product. This keeps it hot and crisper a lot longer." The Henny Penny fryer has a built-in oil filtration system.

This Johnny Rockets upgrade is meant to attract people who want quality food at a fast speed. Visually it retains its all-American feel but is designed to appeal more to millennials, a demographic Walker admits has not widely embraced the '50s aesthetic that launched the brand.

"Quality obviously resonates with everybody, but from a design, decor, and music standpoint, millennials didn't enjoy us as much as we would like them to," Walker says. "I've got five children, and I don't know if any of them know the Norman Rockwell look. They know who Elvis is. But it doesn't really resonate with them. They were playing a mix of 1970s music in here yesterday, and some millennials came in and said, 'Oh, I love these oldies.'"

This past year was one of record growth for the 385-unit chain. Walker says it opened 61 new locations around the world in 2016, including in six new countries, with a dozen more on tap for this year. "From a net growth standpoint, the brand grew 10.1 percent," he says. "That's a big deal. [With] a 30-year old brand with the economic headwind that's happening globally, we think it is pretty exciting to be able to grow double digits. And we think 2017 is going to be even better."

Walker says he gets copied on Johnny Rockets social media posts from around the globe, and he notices a growing demand for its food. The brand can be found on cruise ships, in casinos, and at theme parks. "There are a lot of markets that don't have Johnny Rockets that want them, so for us, growth is really exciting," Walker says. "It grows the brand and creates more job opportunities, which is something that's really important to me: creating jobs and creating wealth for our employees and franchise partners."

The U.S. certainly has plenty of growth possibilities. "We think our opportunity markets are New York, [Washington] D.C., and the Southern California area," Hicks says. "That's where we're focused right now. This [Penn Station location] is prime for us. You have a captive audience and a high volume of people with Madison Square Garden and Penn Station here. It's just a matter of us being able to move people out quickly. We call this our high-efficiency kitchen because it's built for speed and quality. This is the way we're moving forward with Johnny Rockets, whereas [before] it was more casual diner style. I think we missed our opportunity to do some venues like this."

Since he arrived at Johnny Rockets three years ago, Walker has been working on the brand relaunch. He says the process is about two-thirds of the way done. Now that so many aspects of the units have been improved and elevated, Walker would like the company to go back one more time to "see if there's any way we can take it up one more notch."

"What we're trying to do is provide a great guest experience with great food but be very sensitive to time constraints, especially here in America, especially here in New York, especially next to a train station," Walker says. "People are in a hurry, they're in a rush. If you want to sit down and spend an hour at Johnny Rockets and leisurely eat your lunch, awesome. But that's not the norm. Most people are looking for great food really fast, and I think that's something we excel at. We're offering you Shake Shack quality at McDonald's speed. I think that's a very unique position."

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