The iconic Americana chain, known for its dancing staff, old-school ambiance, and juicy hamburgers and hand-dipped shakes, turned 25 on this week. To celebrate, RMGTmagazine.com had a chat with John Fuller, president and CEO, about the past, present, and future of the brand.
What’s the most rewarding part of working with a brand that has so much history? What’s most challenging?
Fuller: The most rewarding part of our particular brand is the ability we have to make people smile. We've always featured upbeat, classic music, dancing staffs, smiles made with ketchup and simple, all-American comfort foods. It's hard to not smile when you're enjoying food and music that bring friends and family together.
The challenge, though, is staying relevant to our customers. Because we've always strived to keep our menu simple and our restaurant true to its timeless look and feel, there are only a few areas we can refresh regularly. We're doing that now with new music and dances, a new menu design, a new graphics and color package, and a new potato bun for our hamburgers.
Over the past 25 years, what developments have you been most excited about or proud of?
I think I speak for most of Johnny Rockets when I say that our international growth has always been something that both pleases and surprises us. Our brand of Americana seems to translate wonderfully in other countries. In fact, the reception to our restaurants in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America has been overwhelming. They know the music, they love the food, and they totally understand and appreciate our concept.
On the other hand, what moments have been most difficult for the company since its beginnings in 1986?
As a franchised business, there are always challenges with keeping everyone happy. We have about 100 business owners who are passionate about this brand and know exactly what works for them in the markets they operate. Unfortunately, however, they don't always agree with ownership or corporate management or each other. In the three years I've been here, our top priority has been bringing those three entities together to determine what's best for the brand.
To celebrate the anniversary, Johnny Rockets opened the doors of a new store in New York City’s historic South Street Seaport. Tell us about the new location.
Not only is it a highly trafficked tourist area—which is ideal for us—it’s also a great example of how something timeless and classic, like the Seaport, can stay fresh and fun in people's minds. That's exactly what we try to do. In fact, this is the first Johnny Rockets restaurant that features a richer design package with woods and earth tones that we have never used before. But it works perfectly in conjunction with the piers and the appeal of that location. That restaurant is also owned by one of our most successful and savvy franchisees [Bill White], so we know great things are going to happen there.
What kind of plans does the brand have for the immediate future?
We plan to open about 40 new restaurants this year, including the first corporate-owned Johnny Rockets we've built in four years. It will be at the famed Cannery Row in Monterey, California, and we expect it to be open in July. We're also helping our franchisees open a number of fun and interesting locations, like a full-service sports bar at The Banks in Cincinnati.
The company recently opened its 14th restaurant in Mexico and has a presence in several international markets. What kind of expansion does the company plan to do, both at home and abroad?
I see us opening 200-300 restaurants over the next 3-5 years, 50-67 percent of which will be located outside the U.S. We recently sold the franchising rights for 40 restaurants in Russia and have restaurants under construction in both Libya and Dominican Republic. Other countries that we plan to sell the rights in are China, Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, India, Singapore, and Vietnam.
If you were advising a young restaurant brand, what would be your advice as to how it can reach the 25-year mark?
I have to quote our founder on this one: It's all in the details. If you pay attention to the details—everything from which ceiling tiles you select to what brand of tuna you'll use—your customers will notice and appreciate every one of them.
By Mary Avant
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