Johnny Rockets can now support two out of three characteristics of "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." The full-service concept announced this week that it will spin-off its Americana brand with four quick-service prototypes, from a standalone drive-thru unit and drive-in accompaniment to a pop-up shop and food truck.

Dubbed Route 66 after the iconic American highway, Johnny Rockets' new concept will focus heavily on menu items the restaurant can cook promptly—burgers, fries, and shakes—and rival the ever-growing surge of eateries entering the better burger segment. As a point of differentiation, drive-thru ordering will take place via video.

"We're still growing our traditional concept, and I don't foresee a time when that won't continue to grow," says James Walker, chief development officer for Johnny Rockets. "But what this new format allows us to do is expand across the U.S., certainly into areas like the Midwest, where traditionally we haven't had a lot of density. It allows us to build out markets and supercharge our domestic growth."

In 2013, Johnny Rockets had 313 global units and 215 stateside. By contrast, brands such as Five Guys Burgers & Fries had 1,120 units in the U.S., while drive-in mainstay Sonic had 3,522. The Route 66 drive-thru concept in particular will allow Johnny Rockets to compete head-to-head with fast-casual brands to pull in diners, Walker says.

Increasing market penetration is key for Johnny Rockets, which primarily, as a full serve, has been confined to malls and outlet shopping centers. Consumer accessibility was a prime motivator for the expansion; intersections, major freeways, and travel plazas are the target of Route 66 drive thrus, which will roll out in California and Texas first, possibly as soon as the year’s end.

"Part of why we developed this prototype is, we felt the real estate didn't have to have a bookend to it," Walker explains. "To put a finer point on it, there are only so many casinos, only so many A-level malls. But as far as locations that could support at Route 66 drive thru? Those locations are almost unlimited."

Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for Ohio-based WD Partners, says the development is a rich opportunity for Johnny Rockets.

“The strategy, of course, is finding other locations, other venues for the brand other than basically the high-volume destination locations that Johnny Rockets tend to be in,” he says. “The brand has somewhat constrained itself in the past with not looking at other venues, not looking for opportunities to expand the brand. I think it’s a welcome change and certainly a welcome experiment.”

The other three prototypes of Route 66—the drive-in movie restaurant, food truck, and pop-up—will operate in conjunction with USA Drive-Ins LLC, a company in the motion picture exhibition industry. USA Drive-Ins plans to add 200 new drive-in locations with Johnny Rockets as the food and beverage option, while the food trucks and "pop-up theatre add-ons," as Johnny Rockets calls them, were created with franchisees in mind to help them increase visibility, mobility, and sales, with possibilities such as a dinner and movie offering.

“I can see why, for the drive-in operator, having a somewhat iconic brand name like Johnny Rockets would be helpful at least getting initial trial,” Lombardi says.

In the Route 66 drive-thru concept, speed of service will rival comparable brands, helped along by kitchen technology that cooks the same burgers, hand-spun shakes, and fries faster than the full-service locations, Walker says. These units will also offer breakfast—the industry's fastest growing daypart—joining the few Johnny Rockets that already serve breakfast, albeit in a sit-down format.

The demographic that Route 66 concentrates on is individuals willing to pay more for higher quality, Walker says, in terms of both food and experience. "Whether we're talking Millennials, Gen X'ers, or Baby Boomers, within each of those generations, there are individuals who are looking for something better," Walker says. "That's really our targeted segment."

The drive thru itself may be the most radical aspect of Route 66. Unlike most quick serves, the drive-thru lane will be plastered with projectors and technology. "This is not just 'Johnny Rockets has a drive thru,'" Walker says. "We've created a drive thru that in itself is a unique experience. I think that's really core to the story."

Diners order on a video monitor, face-to-face with the employee taking their order, and video monitors follow the entire lane to the pick-up window, so consumers can view Johnny Rockets entertainment, from dancing servers to music and entertainment, until they get their food.

Inside, the design will be familiar to consumers who frequent Johnny Rockets, mimicking the full serve’s look and feel.

"Route 66, the idea is to provide a similar experience; it just does so in a more accessible format,” Walker says. “When I started talking to customers and potential investors, they talked about how much they love Johnny Rockets but just wished we had better accessibility. … So, it doesn't change what's great about Johnny Rockets—it's not a departure from that—but all we've done is figure out a way to put it in an accessible format with a little faster speed of service.”

Sonya Chudgar is the associate editor of FSR magazine.

Drive Thru, News, Johnny Rockets