Since Johnny Rockets was founded in 1986, the classic American-themed restaurant became as known for its entertainment value as much as it was revered for its great cheeseburgers and shakes.
With a 1950s diner décor, individual jukebox stations, chrome accents, counter seating, vinyl seats and a staff that breaks into song and dance every 30 minutes or so, Johnny Rockets began popping up on high-traffic streets and inside major shopping malls all over the country. Then, the company found footing internationally, popping up in airports, casinos, cruise lines, tourist attractions and even Yankee Stadium.
The California-based company now has more than 300 locations worldwide, and one of its major focuses right now seems like a natural progression: Theme parks.
In fact, the largest Johnny Rockets franchise is located inside Knott’s Berry Farm amusement Park in Buena Park, Calif., and other big amusement companies followed suit, including Six Flags locations, and there are many in the works.
Jeff Seeberger, senior vice president of franchise sales for Johnny Rockets, said more amusement companies, ranging from family entertainment centers to theme parks, are branding their restaurants as Johnny Rockets for one simple reason: They make money.
“I think that the important thing about a tourist location is that people are coming there whether it’s once a month or more frequently – or even once a quarter and annually – and are interested in fun, family entertainment and enjoy that sense of Americana,” he said. “Plus, they desire great, classic American food such as hamburgers, cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Johnny Rockets thrives in those environments because people are going there to enjoy themselves and the appeal of Johnny Rockets stretches across a lot of demographics.”
John Fuller, CEO and president of Johnny Rockets, said parks, entertainment-based venues and tourist attractions go hand in hand.
“Johnny Rockets does well where people like to go have fun,” he said. “And that is certainly theme parks and tourist attractions. They are places where people like to go. We are a place to escape and have fun and enjoy yourself. So if you put us in a place that has the same goals, it’s a perfect match.”
Currently, there are 21 Johnny Rockets locations in amusement and theme parks, including three international locations. One of its most loyal partners is Palace Entertainment, a Newport Beach, Calif., company that is the fifth largest amusement park company in the world, operating amusement parks such as Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pa., several Raging Waters locations in California, Splish Splash in New York, and family entertainment centers such as SpeedZone locations in California and Texas.
Albert Cabuco, vice president of food and beverage for Palace, took time considering opening Johnny Rockets locations in the company’s attractions.
“We just don’t go and do any franchise,” he said. “Our general rule as a company is to operate our own restaurants and have our own proprietary concepts,” he said. “Our philosophy was why get a pizza from Pizza Hut or a Nathan’s hot dog when you can make your own? But it made sense with Johnny Rockets for one particular location because we thought maybe we could make some more money with a brand. Over the last 1ast 15 years that I have looked at franchises, I always proved to myself and others that if we get the right brand name known by people, we could double our sales.”
Palace’s first experiment with Johnny Rockets was at Splish Splash, which already had an existing diner that opened in 2011. After a strong first year, Palace thought it would be even more successful with a brand well known in New York that was also a fun concept. So in 2012 the diner was branded Johnny Rockets, costing Palace minimal money for items such as signage, implementing the new menu and buying some proprietary equipment such as the chain’s bun caramelizer and burger patty warmer.
The plan worked as the venue, offering just about 10 menu items, more than doubled its revenue. It worked so well that Johnny Rockets will be expanded at Splish Splash this year.
“We didn’t spend much money on it in 2012, so we decided to put some capital dollars in there this year,” Cabuco said. “We are adding two more windows and expanding the back of the house for preparation. And I think we will increase another 35 percent.”
Johnny Rockets did more for the waterpark than bring new food and beverage revenue.
“It was interesting because the diner was situated in a location that was not heavily populated by guests,” Cabuco said. “But after we opened Johnny Rockets, that area saw much more traffic and spread people throughout the park more. So it was powerful.”
With an agreement to open four Johnny Rockets, Palace, which owns 40 amusement parks including 21 family entertainment centers, also opened one inside its Dallas SpeedZone.
“We thought the diner décor matched perfectly because of the checkered black and white and red speed racing flags,” Cabuco said. “So we bought new furniture, repainted the whole area, made it a little bigger menu than Splish Splash but retained the express menu overall, and that was successful, too.”
This year, in addition to the Splish Splash expansion, Palace already opened Johnny Rockets at the Los Angeles SpeedZone and will open a fourth at Lake Compounce, the oldest amusement park in the U.S., this summer.
“In Los Angeles, it’s the same situation, week over week, every week doubled the revenue from the previous year,” Cabuco said. “Los Angeles was our first full-service, table service restaurant, and it has worked out great.”
But Palace Entertainment or any theme park or tourist attraction company would not partner with Johnny Rockets if it wasn’t financially sensible.
“I think as a business proposition we are ultra competitive because of our ability to buy and distribute nationally on a basis of more than 300 restaurants,” Seeberger said. “So there’s value there, but there’s also quality because we only deal with the best such as Coca-Cola and Heinz. We only use the highest quality brand of suppliers and vendors. But our buying power makes us very competitive.”
Seeberger noted that kids like the fun atmosphere and food, while seniors enjoy it just as much because of the nostalgic factor. And it’s popular for teens and couples because of the casual, universally-loved cuisine. However, Johnny Rockets knows not everyone wants to eat beef burgers, so the menu includes everything from veggie burgers to chicken salad to further expand the demographics.
“We believe in the universal appeal of the food we offer,” he said. “But we also believe in quality. People wouldn’t keep coming if the food wasn’t great. And when you come to Johnny Rockets, the food is made fresh for you. Second, our milkshakes are to die for. We use a custom-made ice cream with a high level of butter fat, and we offer the opportunity to have 28 flavors of milkshakes. So that diversity of the menu is a strong appeal.”
Fuller agreed: “Quality is super important. We never sacrifice quality and that’s important. We have specifications and methods for every product and every franchise has to follow the same specs. We provide ample training to make sure everything is done right. And when we hire, we hire people who care. And we have to make sure we have partners who execute what we developed and share the same brand standards.”
Cabuco took it a step further, noting that whether it’s Johnny Rockets, any franchise or operating your own outlet, quality is essential and builds customer loyalty.
“Even if it’s a theme restaurant and the primary goal is entertainment, the basic element of food quality and service cannot be taken out of the equation,” he said. “You want to have fun, but if the food isn’t up to par and not acceptable, the guests won’t come back, especially in this economy. So you shouldn’t just comply with a franchise’s standards; you should up them with your own standards. I manage more than 300 restaurants and they all have to be guided by the quality of food and service and then the element of entertainment third.”
For example, some Palace parks offer a stand that features fried potatoes with cheese sauce and bacon.
“And people get to see them being made in front of them, so that’s the theatrical part of it,” Cabuco said. “They see them cut, blanched, deep fried and then finished with cheese sauce being poured over them and chopped bacon. The demonstration part is important, but they also have to taste great. At Dutch Wonderland, we have a Merlin restaurant with magicians and Merlin and wizardry which is all fine matched with the décor from Medieval times, but still the element of what they are eating and how they are being served is most important.”
That quality control also carries to brands for all of Palace’s themed restaurants.
“We don’t cheap out on anything,” Cabuco said. “We only use Heinz brand condiments. We won’t use the cheapest hot dogs; we use the most expensive such as Nathan’s and Hebrew national. That’s it. We won’t use Oscar Mayer, which is the cheapest, just to save money because we want our guests to have a great experience. We use Tyson for chicken and Hormel for bacon because the yield and flavors are better. We use Kraft cheese because it’s known for quality. We have about 14 different brands represented that we are loyal to because we are all about quality.”
Cabuco also won’t rush products to Palace restaurants without assurance they will work and they are great. The long approval process at Palace includes testing them in a test kitchen, followed by a test at one to four restaurants – one in each region – and carrying an item for six to eight weeks to see guest reaction. After surveys are returned, a longer more involved test schedule is implemented for a whole season. And if the product does well for a full season, it can be put on the other venues’ menus.
“It’s a long and arduous process, but one that works and one that is worth it,” Cabuco said.
While the food is always the main draw of Johnny Rockets – or any themed restaurant – it’s the entertainment aspect that leaves lasting impressions.
“The fact that you have the staff dancing to music from the 1950s, 1960s and even current music makes everyone feel they are part of that entertainment experience,” Seeberger said. “The music combined with the nostalgia and Americana makes customers want to participate. We have Johnny Rockets on cruise ships, and all of a sudden you see the passengers dancing along with the staff and managers. The whole atmosphere and experience just makes them feel good. And we have a super friendly atmosphere because we hire people who want to smile and are customer friendly and make eye contact and make people feel wanted and welcome.”
“When I go to Johnny Rockets at SpeedZone and they dance every 20 minutes or so, the whole restaurant stops and they stare at the employees,” Cabuco added. “It not only affects the atmosphere of the restaurant, but the atmosphere of the whole venue. All of the people playing in the arcade or doing whatever they are doing are attracted by the singing and clapping and might decide, ‘Hey, let’s sit down and grab some food.’ ”
Fuller said that the chain would not be as successful as it is if it wasn’t for the complete package.
“The immersive entertainment experience is a big part because it’s what we present and what the brand is all about – entertainment,” he said. “But when our founder dreamed to open these restaurants, he got there with his passion and enthusiasm for all things Americana, and part of that is comfort food. Hamburgers, shakes and fries are about as Americana as you can get. When you are out having a good time and having fun, it’s just a natural fit. It resonates well with families of all generations. Familiarity is essential and they know exactly what they are getting when they walk into a Johnny Rockets.”
Johnny Rockets’ focus on expanding into more tourist attractions is paying off. The company attended the 2012 IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando, Fla., late last year and received a strong reception from family entertainment centers, theme parks, waterparks and more.
“The Johnny Rockets name is well known and has an immediate identity both domestically and internationally,” Seeberger said.
Another attractive feature of Johnny Rockets is the company’s adaptable footprint able to go anywhere from 600-square-foot counter-service restaurants to eateries that are more than 6,000 square feet, and existing theme park restaurants have actually been rebranded Johnny Rockets with amazing financial results.
“When they convert existing food and beverage operations to Johnny Rockets it is a great opportunity for both of us because of the existing infrastructure, and we can demonstrate through our other partners that average unit volumes have increased from 200 to 300 percent in those locations that converted from existing operations,” Seeberger said.
Fuller said any park that builds a Johnny Rockets or converts an existing restaurant to Johnny Rockets can see “tremendous growth potential.”
“We have incredible relationships with our partners like Six Flags, Cedar Point (in Ohio) and Palace Entertainment,” he said. “We are partnering with significant owners of amusement parks because they understand what we can do for their business. When we entered unbranded locations that were branded with Johnny Rockets, most of those locations have doubled and sometimes tripled their revenue.”
Seeberger said Johnny Rockets will likely expand into other theme parks and tourist attractions.
“It is a restaurant concept that has great food, served in a pleasant, pleasing atmosphere that appeals to a broad range of demographics at reasonable prices,” he said. “That’s very appealing.”
“I think Johnny Rockets fits the amusement park business – that’s why you see it at Six Flags and Knott’s Berry Farm – because it’s everything to everyone,” Cabuco added. “I think it’s an entertainment restaurant that has dancing. And when people go to an amusement park, they like to be entertained and enter a restaurant that has entertainment value. They love that. They don’t just want to sit and eat a burger. They can get a burger anywhere. They want a great burger accompanied by entertainment. That’s the difference.” –
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