Fresh Spin On Classic Americana: Johnny Rockets Rocks a Whole New Look

For the first time in its 26-year history, Johnny Rockets, the high-energy, bright- white 1940s-style burger and malt shop concept, has a new look. Tested over the past year and a half and now implemented in a dozen corporate and franchised locations, the "new" Johnny Rockets is warm, welcoming and decidedly more contemporary.

It fast-forwards the chain a couple of decades from its original WWII-era design theme to the late 1960s/early 1970s — an update intended to help Johnny Rockets remain relevant to younger consumers and better compete within the burgeoning better-burger arena.

Despite current enthusiasm for the new look, this was not a change that the company was eager to make initially. Many in the heavily franchised system, including corporate, weren't convinced that a new look was needed and feared a new design would chip away at the "essence" of Johnny Rockets. But a long-time franchisee, who helped create the original concept, pushed the envelope. Lloyd Sugarman, who now owns 15 Johnny Rockets, including some of the chain's most high-profile, high-volume locations, was adamant that a new prototype design was needed. He took it upon himself to hire a designer and launched a campaign to make it happen.

"We've been around for more than 25 years and didn't really want to alter our look. We thought it captured exactly what we were trying to do and that we might lose some of that if we changed — particularly as we grow internationally," says John Fuller, Johnny Rockets CEO. "The acceptance of American brands has never been higher on an international basis, and our classic look is so Americana to people outside the U.S. It's a look that instantly says it's an American brand. But Lloyd approached us about working with a designer to do a refresh at one of his locations. He's had a long and successful history with the brand and has always been a creative leader, so we told him to see what he could come up with. He and his designer presented a new look that we really liked. We decided to do a couple of test stores, and they're doing really well, as are the stores that Lloyd and a couple of other franchisees have done with the new look."

Campaigning for Change

For his part, Sugarman says it simply was time to make a change, both for the future of the brand and to satisfy landlords eager for property improvements and a fresher look. "We have a lot of older stores within the system that needed remodeling," he says. "In my case, I was negotiating a lease renewal at the upscale Providence Place mall in Providence, R.I. The landlord there wanted a fresh look, and I agreed it was time for an upgrade."

In 2010 Johnny Rockets' vice president of development Crispin Pangan, who had just recently joined the company, teamed with Sugarman on his campaign. "I was new and didn't have the history with the brand," Pangan says. "I told Lloyd I'd be willing to work with him to develop a new image for the brand. It's a 26-year-old concept, and things get dated quickly in this market. We also recognized that there is a lot of pressure from landlords for remodels when leases on these older stores come up for renewals — both corporate and franchised locations. So we decided to proceed and to do a test. That's the only way you're going to find out if there's an impact on the market."

With the green light from corporate, Sugarman brought in Josh Nathanson, senior designer at Morris Nathanson Design in Pawtucket, R.I., to give Johnny Rockets a makeover. Once his ideas were presented, the entire team agreed it was a home run for the brand. Pangan says that stores built or reimaged with the new look come in at roughly the same opening costs as traditional locations and deliver average sales increases of 20 percent to 25 percent on an annualized basis. "Those are nice numbers to hit, especially in this economy," he notes. "The new design generates a lot of momentum in terms of sales increases. And really, that's the objective of any design or development tweaks — to make a strong contribution to the bottom line."

Playing to Strengths

When he first began working on the project, Nathanson made clear that he felt the original Johnny Rockets look had outlived its relevancy and needed a significant overhaul. As a 1930s and '40s-based design concept, the chain itself is 26 years old, but the look it is based on is more than 80 years old, he points out. "The people who relate to the nostalgia of the period are basically in walkers and wheelchairs. This is not the demographic that you want to grow. We needed to push the concept ahead 10 or 20 years in the minds of consumers."

But Nathanson also saw some key strengths in the brand that he felt the design could and should maintain. Top among them was the open kitchen. "It really sets Rockets apart and speaks to quality and freshness because they make the food right in front of you. The hood and cookline with counter seating wrapping around it are central to the concept, but the original design didn't do anything to highlight them. From a design perspective, we felt we could exploit the open cooking more by making the hood more of a focal point — an iconic element."

He did so by adding neon lettering highlighting the chain's signature products — burgers, fries and shakes — to the exterior face of the hood and adding chrome and vertical stripe accents in Johnny Rockets' traditional signature red. The new design maintains and enhances that color, which was the only spot color used in the classic units against a stark white background.

"We paid homage to white, but in a more subtle way than in the old design, where it is everywhere — floors, walls, ceilings," Nathanson says. "We also kept the red as a signature color and, in fact, expanded on it and made it more prominent. We lined the counters with it; we used it more strategically in the seat covers and booths, in the neon and as pops of color on the exteriors."

The signature red is also featured in the new flooring, which Nathanson and Sugarman agree is among the best changes made to the interior design. A random pattern of 1-inch-by-1-inch ceramic mosaic tiles featuring red and white, but also softer earth tones, adds both energy and warmth. "We picked five colors and had the vendor do a random mix. It comes laid up on sheets, so it's very easy install," says Nathanson.

Also warming up the space are wood tones used on the walls in dining areas — dark wood laminate wainscoting with a lighter wood laminate above the chair rail. "We kept it laminate to keep it simple, durable and washable, but went to wood tones to make it warmer and add some interest," Nathanson says. "We also added some vertical red striping to the walls to carry that theme through and to break up the monotony where we have long walls."

Cove lighting was added around the base of the ceiling, and fixtures were changed from old-fashioned malt-shop lamps to retro perforated stainless steel fixtures.

Overall layout, flow and seating types weren't changed in any significant ways. Seating, as before, is booth-heavy, which the project team agrees is appropriate for the concept. The company did make changes to seating styles and materials, however.

"We went to a very contemporary booth and also tried to contemporize the counter stools and chairs a bit," Nathanson says. "And we've gone to slicker upholstery than in the original units, which was a traditional red Naugahyde-type material. The new material is like a slicker, shiny red vinyl. Also, whereas all of the vinyl in original Rockets restaurants was solid red, we've broken it up by adding ivory stripes and accents."

Kitchen layout and basic operations remain the same, as well, with a small back-of-the-house prep kitchen and storage area supporting the main open-kitchen area in the front of the house.

Johnny Rockets is rolling its new look out on a broader scale — both domestically and internationally. Fuller emphasizes, however, that franchisees have the option of choosing to develop or remodel with the new or the classic look. "It's optional, and we've also developed a package of components in a hybrid look so they can include elements of the old and the new."

From Sugarman's point of view, however, there's no turning back. The cost is about the same, maybe even a bit less, but it's not about saving dollars. "It's about spending the same dollars and having a fresh, exciting, more comfortable ambiance. It's about taking a strong brand and making it stronger for the future."

Project Team

  • John Fuller, CEO, The Johnny Rockets Group
  • Crispin Pangan, vice president of development, Johnny Rockets
  • Tim Hackbardt, senior vice president of marketing, Johnny Rockets
  • Lloyd Sugarman, franchisee/project originator
  • Jason Sugarman, franchisee/operations project manger
  • Designer: Josh Nathanson, Morris Nathanson Design, Pawtucket, R.I.
  • Project Manager: Jim Souza, Morris Nathanson Design

Snapshot

  • Headquarters: Aliso Viejo, Calif.
  • Ownership: RedZone Capital Fund II
  • Units: 289 in 18 countries, 90 percent franchised
  • Sales: More than $300 million
  • Real Estate: Malls, casinos, airports, theme parks, freestanding, cruise ships
  • Projects: 15 to 20 new units in 2012, 25 to 30 in 2013; more than half with new prototype
  • Reimaging Costs: $75,000 to $150,000
  • Remodel Build-Out: One month on average, if the unit remains open
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