Meet the new Johnny Rockets.
The Lake Forest, Calif.-based chain has unveiled a comprehensive new 2.0 prototype design that updates the look of its restaurants from 1950s diner to a contemporary American better-burger joint, the company told Nation's Restaurant News.
The first restaurant to sport the new look opened in the Destiny U.S.A. mall in Syracuse, N.Y., about two weeks ago, but the grand opening is scheduled for Friday.
With the new décor comes a new logo declaring the brand “an American original,” as well as new server uniforms, and even an overhaul of the music.
Gone are the tabletop jukeboxes and servers dancing to the oldies of the 1950s and ‘60s. The new prototype features a more contemporary mix of tunes, with technology upgrades to match.
“It’s a diner experience in a modern, contemporary setting,” said Charles Bruce, president and CEO of Johnny Rockets Group Inc.
The move comes as Johnny Rockets celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Bruce, who joined the company about 14 months ago, after Johnny Rockets was acquired in 2013 by an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners Inc., said he was tasked with putting the brand on a sustainable growth trajectory for the next 30 years.
After doing some in-depth consumer research, the company found consumers liked a lot about the brand, but felt it had become “a little tired and old, and less relevant than in the past,” Bruce said.
So the company hired consumer research and design firm WD Partners to bring Johnny Rockets to the next level. One goal is to better appeal to Millennials, families and Hispanic consumers, which Bruce said are among the fastest growing demographic groups.
“What we needed was an environment and a setting that people felt was more contemporary, and to compete with all the other modern burger concepts out there,” Bruce said. “Every brand goes through an evolution to stay relevant. We’re no different.”
The 2.0 design uses wood planking and white brick veneer, industrial glass globe pendant lighting and furniture that moves, as well as communal tables designed to accommodate different sizes of groups.
“In the past, seats were bolted to the floor or around a counter. Now you can move tables around and you have the flexibility to sit with friends. And we have the communal table, which didn’t exist before,” Bruce said.
On the walls are freshness cues with language like “fresh never frozen 100-percent domestic farm-raised beef” and “fresh, farm to table.”
The new design also incorporates a move toward both more consumer-facing technology and back-of-the-house initiatives to speed service and improve consistency.
The Syracuse unit, for example, offers touchscreen kiosks for to-go ordering outside the restaurant. It’s not part of the in-restaurant experience at that restaurant, but it could be elsewhere, Bruce said.
Express locations, for example, might use a kiosk to replace a customer service representative to give guests the option of interacting with human or technology.
“We wanted to show respect for consumers’ time. No one has enough of it,” Bruce said. “And we wanted to make the ordering process simple.”
The new prototype also has a Coke Freestyle drink station.
Within a few months the chain will begin testing a new mobile app, which will include a loyalty program and nutrition information about the menu.
With that will also come updates to the website and social media platforms.
In the kitchen, new technology will speed the cooking of burgers to less than one minute, from the current five-minute cook time. Milkshakes will also be hand-dipped and spun in about half the time.
“It’s the same quality, just a lot faster,” Bruce said.
James Walker, Johnny Rockets president of operations and development, said the brand refresh will be applied in phases across the domestic and international system as restaurants are remodeled or new units are built.
Franchisees were introduced to the new look at a meeting in February, where the company got great feedback. “They were really excited,” Walker said.
The décor package can be applied to the various restaurant footprints now available, including full-service Johnny Rockets, along with the chain’s newer drive-thru and express units.
New menu marketing highlights quality
In June, the first drive-thru location is scheduled to open in Mooresville, N.C., and an express location will open in Tucson, Ariz., in July.
Walker said a limited-service “pay-first” model is also scheduled to open in New York City by mid summer.
The chain includes about 193 domestic units, of which about 21 are company owned, and 154 international locations in 28 countries.
Walker estimates that about 70 new restaurants will open in 2016, a record for the brand, including two company units, in addition to the new prototype in Syracuse.
Along with the décor, Johnny Rockets has also been working to upgrade the menu. The focus will remain on burgers and shakes, as it has since the first restaurant opened in 1986, said Joel Bulger, Johnny Rockets chief marketing officer.
“We had a great brand story and we had wonderful ingredients, with never-frozen beef and cage-free chicken. But we weren’t telling that story,” Bulger said.
The chain hired a new director of culinary innovation in October.
Over the past year, the chain has been adding more “craveable” products and exploring new ways to engage with consumers, like limited-time milkshakes in partnership with the children’s books “Goosebumps,” and tie-ins with the “Divergent” movie series.
The chain has also added shareable appetizers, like Tater Tots with various toppings, and shareable mini desserts are now in test.
Some of the new items are also more premium in price, which has driven Johnny Rockets’ average check of $13.33 up slightly, he noted.
“But guests are saying, ‘Wow, this is more than I expected.’ Our research indicates it will drive frequency and they’re willing to pay a bit more for what they see as a better value,” Bulger said.
Rather than the retro soda fountain uniforms of the past, the new uniforms will include white Oxford shirts for servers and dark chalk-striped shirts for managers, with black or dark-denim jeans, along with denim waist aprons for server and full-bib aprons for cooks.
Meanwhile, Johnny Rockets Group has plans to move forward with a new sub-brand concept called Johnny’s Burger Factory, which debuted in Buffalo, N.Y., in September.
The Millennial-friendly, fast-casual Johnny’s Burger Factory has a similar menu but more of a focus on beer.
Correction: April 14, 2016 The status of the prototype restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y. was incorrect in a photo caption with this article. The restaurant has opened.