By Nancy Luna
The Orange County Register
April 14, 2016
To assure its future, Lake Forest-based Johnny Rockets is scrapping much of its past.
The iconic Lake Forest-based burger chain is saying goodbye to dancing servers in white paper caps, jukeboxes, red-vinyl booths and stainless steel counters. The 30-year-old chain founded in Los Angeles is unveiling today a contemporary restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y., with wooden finishes, pendant lighting and a self-serve ordering kiosk for to-go orders.
“We were showing our age. We were looking a little old; a little tired,” Chief Executive Charles Bruce said in a phone interview Wednesday.
While there’s “equity in the brand,” Bruce said, the chain’s 350 restaurants have not seen the kind of repeat foot traffic needed to keep the chain going another 30 years. “The frequency wasn’t really good.”
The prototype New York restaurant looks like a modern fast-casual diner with glass globe lights, wood finishes on walls and tabletops, dark-colored booths and bright red chairs and barstools.
This year, the chain plans to grow aggressively with 70 new locations domestic and worldwide. Of those, one-third are adopting the new look. The rest of the chain, including older locations in Southern California, will adopt elements of the changes in stages, the company said.
The most dramatic changes are wiping out key 1950s-inspired features that have made the brand a Southern California institution.
In New York, servers are dressed in black or dark denim jeans with white oxford shirts. No more paper hats and nostalgic soda jerk-style uniforms. Quaint hospitality-driven touches like servers creating smiley-face ketchup designs next to an order of fries and spontaneous dancing are also going away.
Bruce, who came on board last year as CEO, said “someone dancing isn’t really relevant these days” to most customers, including millennials.
The changes are meant to move the brand forward by reaching out to millennials, while increasing sales among core customers – families and Latino diners. In 2015, Johnny Rockets generated nearly $206 million in sales, down 4.6 percent from 2014, according to market research firm Technomic in Chicago.
For now, the chain is focusing on making design changes to new restaurants. The core menu remains the same, though efforts have been made to add more limited-time burger specials in the last year.
Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said shifting from its nostalgic brand roots is risky.
“Moving away from what consumers identify with the brand could be potentially confusing,” he said.
Still, he said the chain’s decision to first introduce the change to newer locations is a good approach.
“I think you test and see if it works,” he said.
Chain officials declined to say how much capital the privately owned company is investing in the new design. However, Bruce said the redesign might look “upmarket” and “eye-catching” but the costs are “on par with where Johnny Rockets has been.”