Roy Rogers: Can Chain Put Cowboy Back In The Saddle?

Its namesake has been dead for seven years, and the brand has been in decline for twice that long, but the owners of Roy Rogers restaurants are out to convince potential franchisees that there’s still equity in the singing cowboy’s chain.

“There’s a huge amount of pent-up demand for the brand,” said Jim Plamondon, co-president of The Plamondon Companies, which bought the name and franchise rights for the restaurant chain two years ago. “We know it can be great.”

Plamondon and his brother, Peter Jr., acquired the name from Imasco, a Canadian holding company that operated Hardee’s restaurants. (Terms of the purchase were not disclosed.) The brothers then formed the Roy Rogers Franchise Co. to market the chain.

The Plamondons said they have a five-year plan dubbed “Roy Rogers Rides Again” to restore the chain to its former glory, primarily by doubling the number of stores through corporate ownership and selling franchises. There are currently about 60 Roy Rogers restaurants in nine East Coast states.

Earlier this year they hired +SmithGifford, an independent shop in Washington, D.C., to handle marketing for the relaunch effort, set to debut this month. The agency plans local radio, outdoor and in-store promotions using the tagline, “Real food. Real choices.” Neither the agency nor the Plamondons would disclose the budget; the company has no recorded measured media spending in the last five years.

Selling the Roy Rogers brand to potential franchisees promises to be a challenge, said Kay Ainsley, a managing director of Michael Seid & Associations, a Chicago-based consultancy that works with franchisers. “It’s always difficult to get franchisees excited about something that has failed in the past,” Ainsley said. “There are so many other things for them to choose from.”

Ainsley also questioned the value of the Roy Rogers name. The actor died in 1998 at the age of 87, and many younger people don’t remember him, she said, so the company will have the dual duty of promoting the restaurant’s food and explaining its namesake. The Plamondons have no plans to use Rogers in advertising. However, a painting of the cowboy appears in every store, along with quotes offering his “values.”

Reviving a brand is difficult but in some ways easier than starting from scratch, said Sid Feltenstein, a former CEO of Yorkshire Global Restaurants who worked to bring back the A&W Restaurant and Long John Silver’s chains. “If you have good brand recognition and bring back what the customer knows you for, you can do it,” Feltenstein said. An existing brand, even one that has been neglected, “already has awareness and equity.”

The Plamondons have to preserve that legacy and “package it for the 21st century,” added Feltenstein, noting that the Roy Rogers brand offers that opportunity. “Americans love what was,” he said.

The Plamondons own almost all of the stores now open. They plan to continue owning about 15 percent of the stores as corporate holdings while franchising the rest. Their father opened the first Roy Rogers restaurant in 1968 in Falls Church, Va., as an executive for Marriott, which had licensed the then-still-popular actor’s name. The elder Plamondon left Marriott in 1980 to become the chain’s largest single franchisee.

The chain had more than 650 stores when Marriott sold it to Imasco for $365 million in 1990. The company converted most of the stores to Hardee’s and eventually sold many of the locations to its fast-food competitors.