Saturday, April 12, 2008

In just 10 years, Roy Rogers restaurants went from a corporate empire to a shattered and struggling chain of less than 50 stores. But by franchising restaurants and bringing back loyal customers, Jim Plamondon says he hopes to bring the company back to prosperity.

“[The chain] was a disaster,” said Mr. Plamondon, co-president, but if things go according to plan, recovery lies ahead. The company is operating a booth during the International Franchise Show today and tomorrow at the D.C. Convention Center, a sign that Roy Rogers is trying for a comeback.

At its peak, Roy Rogers had 648 stores. Then, Marriott sold the chain in 1990 to Hardee’s in a $365 million deal and the downsizing began.

“I moved to this area in 1969 and I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Roy Rogers,” said Phil Troutman, a Rockville alarm technician. Mr. Troutman said he was sorry to see many of the restaurants go out of business and he now looks for an excuse to stop at every Roy Rogers he spots.

Eight years ago Mr. Plamondon and his brother assumed control of the chain and made the decision to build more restaurants.

“People thought we were nuts,” he said, explaining that every chain needs to see growth. The next year he opened the company’s first new restaurant since the decline.

“The lines were out the door,” he said. “It was like we were giving the food away — we had never seen anything like this.”

On the day of the opening, the Plamondon brothers said they overheard a family praying, thanking God that Roy Rogers had returned to their hometown.

It turns out that the brand was too popular a memory for many customers to turn down.

Steve Rosenthal, a Rockville resident, said he has been going to Roy Rogers for 38 years, or “since I was old enough to eat solid food.”

Arrel Godfrey, 65, a Montgomery Village resident, said he comes for the balanced, low-fat meals. He said he eats at Roy Rogers nearly every day and appreciates the good service.

“It takes hardly any time to get the food, [it’s] healthy, the employees are friendly, and it’s very well run in that regard,” he said. “You never get anybody who … doesn’t say ‘thank you.’ ”

Though he described the meals as unique and delicious, Mr. Rosenthal, a technical information specialist, said that “price-wise … it’s on the higher-end of fast food.”

“I don’t get to enjoy it as much as I’d like,” he said. “There’s just not that many restaurants around. Therefore, when I see one, I’ll pay the extra buck or two that it costs for a meal because it’s worth it.”

Mr. Rosenthal said he was optimistic about the franchising efforts.

“I would absolutely love” to see more Roy Rogers, he said.

Mr. Plamondon said that the newest franchise just opened in Connecticut and that one in Virginia was on its way.

“That’s the power of the brand,” he said. “Over the next five years, we’d like to grow the brand between two and four restaurants per year.”

After the restaurant in Wheaton closed, Khari Williams, a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, began eating at the Roy Rogers in Gaithersburg, where he said he enjoyed being able to assemble his own burger.

Maria Henriquez, general manager of the Gaithersburg Roy Rogers, said she has worked for the Maryland-based company for almost a decade, and she appreciates the flexible shifts and the encouragement for continued education.

Mrs. Henriquez, a Frederick, Md., resident who faces up to an hour commute each way to get to work, said the company’s efforts to rebuild the chain was good news, though it would take time to rebuild an empire.

Timothy Warren contributed to this report.

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