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Back in the Saddle Again

After languishing in franchise turmoil amid franchisor changes, Roy Rogers franchisees take the reins of the franchise system and plan on blazing a trail back to the top of the food chain.

Some may hear "Roy Rogers" and recall the beloved crooning cowboy on the silver screen, others a fast-food restaurant. Some may only shoot back a blank stare. In the 1990s, the once 648-location-strong franchise bearing Roy Rogers' namesake dwindled down to 13 remaining franchisees as a result of changing franchisor ownership and corporate selloffs. Jim and Pete Plamondon, Jr., hope their recent purchase of the Roy Rogers restaurant franchise system can make loyal customers out of everyone, with a campaign to relaunch the brand. Besides seeking to attract those who remember the quick-service restaurant, the brothers aim to court those who've never heard of the chain or the actor. I spoke to Jim Plamondon about Roy Rogers' new beginnings and plans for the future.

Why did you and your brother want to relaunch Roy Rogers? And what caused the brand to wither the first time?

Our dad was an executive vice president with Marriott Corp. [which started Roy Rogers] in the late 1960s through 1980. He became a [Roy Rogers] franchisee in 1980 in Frederick, Maryland, and [we've helped him] grow the business from a franchisee perspective over the last number of years. We're actually celebrating our 25th anniversary soon--it was August 1980 when he opened the first Roy Rogers.

In 1990, Hardee's bought the brand. At the time, the system had 648 restaurants nationwide--in California, Washington, Oklahoma, Texas, but primarily in the Northeast; specifically, the mid-Atlantic region. Hardee's bought it for the real estate, not necessarily to run them as Roy Rogers restaurants, but to convert them to Hardee's restaurants. That was a failure. Unfortunately, it did not work for whatever reason, so they ended up selling off the corporate restaurants over the years in the mid-1990s. Franchisees started getting out of the business, but we continued to be successful in our markets. During these turbulent times of the 1990s, we continued to be successful operating Roy Rogers restaurants.

We saw a tremendous amount of equity in the brand, the name and the food, particularly during this time. There were 184 restaurants in the Baltimore/ Washington, DC, market--Hardee's ended up [closing them]. And this was kind of the largest concentration of Roy Rogers in this region. We would get calls, letters, comment cards, people running into us and saying, "Please bring Roy Rogers back! You've closed this one, and that one..." We saw this incredible amount of loyalty to the brand, and thought, "We have to gain control of this franchise system and trademark and ultimately expand the brand, because there's still a lot of opportunity and pent-up demand for Roy's food."

How will you bring leadership to your existing franchisees?

First off, by hiring the right people with the right vision--the vision to show prospective franchisees that this chain does have equity and can grow into a regional force once again. We hired Barbara Pacifico as director of operations of our 15 corporate stores and 40 franchise units. Barbara is a very experienced executive who used to be with Marriot working for Roy Rogers, then worked for Hardee's for a number of years.

What do you have planned so far?

HMS Host operates 21 Roy Rogers restaurants in travel plazas. They're what you call a master concessionaire--multiple brands, multiple franchises. They were spun off by the Marriott and did, in fact, sign a new franchise agreement with us. We are intending to grow the brand with HMS Host, which is interested in growing the brand as much as they can.

How will you connect with consumers of the younger generation who don't know who or what Roy Rogers is?

Our brand is very popular with the older generation and the middle generation, because a number of those folks grew up knowing Roy Rogers as young kids. Now that we're relaunching, people are saying, "Oh, Roy's is back! I remember Roy's when I was a kid." But our menu also speaks to the younger generation, because we're look at our brand focused on three things: quality, variety and choice. The younger generation is now looking for higher quality food and a menu with a wide variety. We offer roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, Bush's baked beans, cole slaw, baked potatoes, etc. We provide an alternative to just your typical burger and fries.

How will you begin marketing to consumers and potential franchisees?

What we have done and will continue to do is advertise on radio. We'll also focus a lot on local store marketing. We're not one of the multithousand-unit chains--we want to do it locally, whether that means partnering with schools, working with nonprofits or providing catering to businesses. We're more focused on a local grassroots level rather than a national media campaign.

The market, to a large extent, is pretty well saturated with some of these brands. There's a lot of McDonald's, Burger Kings and Wendy's already. We look at ourselves as a cut above. We're an alternative. We're not a discount-oriented chain--whereas some of the other brands rely heavily on coupons, we don't do that. The attention we do provide to franchisees is in terms of support and services. We want to help them grow their business, manage their business, create the standards and enforce the standards, provide coaching, training, marketing, resources to them. Because we are smaller and have a good amount of resources devoted to the franchise side of our business, we can provide support that's a cut above.

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