A Johnny Rockets franchisee is testing a new quick-service variant of the burger brand in Phoenix that could become a future growth vehicle.
Franchise operator Richard “Rip” Riva of J. Rockets Enterprises, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week opened a new concept called JR’s Burger Grill, in collaboration with franchisor The Johnny Rockets Group, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
JR’s Burger Grill offers a simple menu of burgers and sandwiches, similar to that of Johnny Rockets, but with dishes smaller in size and at a lower price point. “It’s QSR pricing and convenience with a fast-casual setting,” said Cozette Phifer Koerber, Johnny Rockets’ vice president of brand marketing and corporate communications.
A classic single-patty burger, for example, is $2.99 at JR’s Burger, compared with $5 to $8 at Johnny Rockets, said Vinnie Calcagni, vice president of operations for JR’s Burger Grill. Shakes are $2.95, about $3 less than at the full-service chain and about 4 ounces smaller.
The ingredients are the same quality as the full-service brand, Calcagni noted, but the buns and burger patties are slightly smaller. JR’s menu also includes other classic sandwiches like a BLT, grilled cheese andbreast, as well as fries, onion rings and kids meal options.
The new restaurant’s décor is also contemporary and simple, a step away from Johnny Rockets’ classic 1950s-style diner design.
“It’s definitely a laboratory for us,” Koerber said of the test with J. Rockets Enterprises. “We couldn’t have found anyone better to try this.” The franchise group operates five other Johnny Rockets locations in Arizona, as well as eight Arby’s restaurants in Washington state and Idaho.
Calcagni said one goal of testing the quick-service variant of Johnny Rockets is to better compete with the growing number of fast-casual “better burger” players, like Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. “Smashburger and other fast-casual, on-the-go type restaurants seem to be doing really well," he noted. "So we thought that would be something we’d like to tap into."
The 2,500-square-foot former Johnny Rockets location that now houses JR’s Burger Grill is also next to a shopping mall property that has shifted from big chain stores to more discount retail concepts, and the customer demographics have changed, Koerber said. Rather than looking for a sit-down Johnny Rockets experience, guests appeared to want something quicker and less expensive, without the need for adding on a tip.
Calcagni added that the new concept would be careful not to draw business away from the group’s other Johnny Rockets locations nearby, which have been trending positive in sales this year. Staff members at JR’s Burger, for example, won’t dance or break into song with the jukebox, as they might do at Johnny Rockets.
“The last thing I want to do is turn them away from Johnny Rockets, because that’s what we are,” he said.
If the test is successful, however, the new JR’s Burger could be a concept that might fit in locations that wouldn’t work for Johnny Rockets, he said. “It’s not discounting the brand or the product. It’s responding to a realistic demand out there,” said Calcagni. “In this crazy financial world, you have to try to do something a little different.”
Meanwhile, Johnny Rockets is opening even larger restaurants. Earlier this month, the second largest Johnny Rockets in the U.S. opened in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with 5,200-square feet and seating for nearly 200. The largest location opened in the amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm in 2006.
Operated by franchisee Nick Thomas, the Rancho Mirage location offers— from waffles to smoothies — as well as an expanded menu with more healthful options, such as spinach salad, and more indulgent offerings like cakes and desserts.
Johnny Rockets operates or franchises about 222 locations domestically. The chain is also aggressively growing overseas with the goal of more than doubling the 68 restaurants currently operating in 16 countries internationally.