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STOREFRONTS: Rocket ‘n’ roll

Casual dining chain Johnny Rockets launches new locations in non-traditional venues.

When customers step into a Johnny Rockets restaurant, they may think they have stepped into the past — a time when jukeboxes still played melodies by Buddy Holly for only a nickel. Today, patrons can continue to find themselves being served double cheeseburgers and hand-dipped shakes by soda jerks in white uniforms while Elvis croons soulfully in the background. Johnny Rockets is proving that everything old is new again by expanding its locations into airports and cruise ships as well as malls and lifestyle centers.

The first of the 142 Johnny Rockets restaurants opened in Los Angeles in 1986. Four more stores and 12 franchises opened during 2000 while 20 franchises and an additional six to eight company locations are online this year. Currently 62 members of the 1950s-inspired chain are franchise-operated, but that number is expected to expand rapidly in coming years. In fact, over the past few years, the chain has been growing at a rate of 20% to 25% annually. Sales in fiscal 2000 including franchised ventures totaled $126 million.

“We are growing two-fold through multi-unit developers, rather than single unit developers,” says Greg Hubbard, vice president of development. “We are now going to a multi-unit development growth strategy where we enter into multi-unit agreements with experienced food service operators.” Hubbard continues. “The typical multi-unit developer has eight to 10 locations to develop in a 10-year period.”

Johnny Rockets are in 32 states and occupy sites in international venues as diverse as Australia, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. “As far as company units go, we're focusing on areas where we have current market penetration, especially in California and Florida,” explains Hubbard.

This Americana eatery is usually located in lifestyle centers, strip centers and specialty retail entertainment complexes. Most customers, who may only visit a store once a month, are usually entering or leaving an event or entertainment destination such as a movie, and nearly 40% of business comes from tourists.

In addition to the usual restaurant locales, Hubbard says the company is expanding into non-traditional venues such as airports — it has one location in Phoenix International — and cruise ships such as Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Sea. The company plans a total of five operations on the high seas in the near future, but exact dates have not been secured.

Johnny Rockets occupies an expanding niche in the casual dining segment, but Hubbard says the restaurant chain avoids being classified as fast food. Instead, it continues to separate itself by emphasizing nostalgia and maintaining customer relations.

“We typically have six points of contact with our consumers through their visit,” says Hubbard. “The personal attention to the consumer, as well as the music and entertainment portion of our business, creates the environment.”

Contact: Greg Hubbard, vice president for development, 949.643.6118.

Randy Southerland is an Atlanta-based writer.

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