Johnny Rockets may have fallen to earth—but it has a new rocket in its pocket.

After sales at the 1950s-style diner chain softened amid a sea of better-burger competition, new management recognized there was still serious equity in the brand, and that the format doesn’t need a bulldozer so much as a next-step visionary.

Enter Johnny’s Burger Factory—something closer to fast food but with a leg up in quality. The first Johnny’s Burger Factory opened in late September at the Walden Galleria mall in Buffalo, New York. It’s a test, but it won’t be the last one. A second one is on tap to open in Syracuse, New York, later this year.

Think of this casual-dining venture as a cross between a modern diner (yes, there are still some stools and a counter) and a Shake Shack. It’s still mostly about quality burgers, hand-breaded chicken tenders, and fries, but you also can snare a craft beer. You can order on a kiosk. And when you walk in, you feel less like you’re entrapped in the 1950s and instead empowered by the technological prospects of the 21st century.

Millennial bait, for sure.

“Millennials don’t want to be classified as Millennials, but they want to engage with technology,” says CEO Charles Bruce, the former Peter Piper Pizza CEO who joined the company in March. “They also want new experiences and customization—and they don’t want to be marketed to.”

Perhaps most importantly, Millennials don’t want to wait. Unlike a conventional Johnny Rockets, where burgers take about five minutes to cook, the new-fangled clam-shell cooking technology used at Johnny’s Burger Factory cooks and seals the meat on both sides at the same time, taking a total of about 50 seconds.

“Brands are living entities. Either you’re growing or you’re dying.”

Even Bruce, the CEO, doesn’t know where this latest prototype will take the Johnny Rockets brand. It could be just a few stores. Or it could be the future of the entire brand. It’s just too early to tell. But in a world where better-burger chains from Five Guys to Shake Shack to Smashburger are nibbling away at business, Johnny Rockets is seriously seeking a new orbit.

“Brands are living entities,” Bruce says. “Either you’re growing or you’re dying. There is no suspended animation.” The brand tried to do just that for years, but not any more, he adds. “As consumer tastes evolve, you have to evolve.”

Johnny Rockets’ evolution began last year, when the brand announced its Route 66 prototype, which will be quick service and focus heavily on the drive thru. Route 66 plans to open its first location soon as well.

It’s about time the brand evolved, says one analyst.

“Give Millennials a choice between yesterday’s news and something that looks fresh and a little more on trend, and they’ll take the latter,” says Allan Hickok, a restaurant industry consultant and Wall Street veteran.

There’s almost nothing that wasn’t tweaked to make Johnny’s Burger Factory a different animal from Johnny Rockets. For starters, it looks different. The design is more industrial, including reclaimed wood siding and corrugated metal siding on the walls. There’s a bamboo dining counter lit by Edison pendant lights.

It also tastes different. The so-called Factory Burger is topped with thick-cut Applewood-smoked bacon, Cheddar cheese, a spring mix, tomato, and onion, and is served on an artisan bun. The chicken tenders come hand-breaded. And the burger offerings—made from never-frozen beef—offer more customization than conventional Johnny Rockets locations; customers get a choice of cheeses and toppings. There’s also a self-service sauce bar for sandwiches and tenders.

Finally, it feels different. Signs of new tech are everywhere. It has a video wall and digital menuboard that looks like a chalkboard. Customers who want to can order from a touch-screen kiosk.

But the great unknown is how this format ultimately will evolve. Many of the ideas behind the new concept will be incorporated into new Johnny Rockets locations, too, Bruce says. “We’ll use these as a model as we remodel and build new Johnny Rockets,” he says.

Under the ownership of Sun Capital Partners, which purchased the chain in 2013, Johnny Rockets will open more than 50 locations this year, says James Walker, president of global operations at the brand. The chain has 344 locations in 24 states and 25 countries. Average unit volume is about $1.1 million per store, says Bruce, who projects the chain could have more than 500 locations by 2020, with sales potentially doubling to about $700 million.

Still uncertain, however, is if the future will continue to focus on the Johnny Rockets brand or the company’s limited-service offshoots. Or all of the above.

Whichever it is, the chain will be much more Millennial-friendly, with a snazzier design and meals prepared much more quickly, says Joel Bulger, chief marketing officer. “This is the place where you can get a super quality burger brought to you fast,” he says.

Johnny Rockets stores will no longer be stuck in the era of Elvis, sock hops, and soda fountains.

“We can’t get stuck in the 1950s,” Bruce says. “We’ve got to evolve the brand so it remains contemporary.”

Freelance writer Bruce Horovitz is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at
Back of House, Burgers, Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Design, Fast Casual, Growth, Restaurant Operations, Web Exclusives, Johnny Rockets