Greetings, Fast Foodie readers. Welcome back after a bit of a long (and unintentional) hiatus. In the time since my last column, KFC brought back its Nashville Hot Chicken, Taco Bell gave away Doritos Locos Tacos because Francisco Lindor stole a base in the World Series, president-elect Donald Trump tapped the CEO of Hardee's to be Labor Secretary, and an untold number of new menu items and deals were unveiled.
The world of fast food continues to percolate, and it could bring a rare gem to Baltimore in the new year: a Roy Rogers.
You might remember the chain of restaurants named for a movie star cowboy that was a staple in the '70s and '80s. It was a favorite of mine as a kid—so much so that I had a birthday dinner there once. Alas, Roy Rogers faded away in the '90s.
But it's making a comeback thanks to The Plamondon Companies, a business based in Frederick that mostly specializes in hotel management. The company bought the Roy Rogers brand in 2002 and have been steadily growing it ever since, opening five new Roy Rogers in 2016 alone, including one this summer in Pasadena. Maryland has 22 locations in all.
Could Baltimore be next? I called Jim Plamondon, the head of the restaurant division of the business that he and his brother run, to find out.
"The answer is yes, we would like to and we're talking to folks now that are franchise operators that are in Baltimore."
Unfortunately, nothing is imminent. Plamondon says he's not close to a signed agreement and estimates that it will be six months to a year before a Roys comes closer to the Baltimore area. And let me tell you why it's unfortunate, especially for those readers that don't know it: Roy Rogers is the Swiss Army Knife of fast food chains.
They have what Plamondon refers to as the "holy trio": roast beef, fried chicken, AND burgers.
"And no one, no other competitor, does that," he says. You might be able to find two out of the three at some places, but never all three. And they manage to do all three well.
The real king-maker, though, is the Fixin's Bar, a salad bar of vegetable toppings and sauces that allows diners to dress their order however they like. Anyone who's had a McDonald's burger sloppily slathered with ketchup and mustard knows why this is crucial. Frankly, it's kind of surprising more places haven't adopted it, particularly in the era when Chipotle and the like have made customization king.
Couple the Fixin's Bar with eight different side items in addition to the fast food staple of french fries, and you have an element of choice that most fast food restaurants can't provide.
"We have a lot of repeat customers and a lot of loyal customers who can come in more than one day a week and feel like they're getting a very different experience each one of those days," says Plamondon. As for himself, Plamondon says he eats Roy Rogers six out of seven days in a week. No lie. He and his brothers are hands-on owners, he says, so he stops in to see how things are running.
He also made a point to emphasize the quality of ingredients at Roy Rogers, pegging the restaurant somewhere between your typical fast food chain and fast-casual joints such as Panera and Chipotle. The roast beef, which receives a mid-tier grade of USDA Choice, is just one example.
"That's really a cut above typical beef that you find [at a fast food restaurant]," he says. "It's slow-roasted in the oven and sliced to order."
A little bit more background on Roy Rogers: The restaurant was founded by the Marriott hotel company in the late '60s and eventually grew to more than 600 locations in the U.S., 184 of which, Plamondon says, were in a corridor stretching from Baltimore to Northern Virginia.
In 1991, around the time Trump's man for the Labor Department, Andrew Pudzer (who, by the way, is a total scumbag), was helping Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, rebuild his fortune, Roy Rogers was sold by Marriott to Karcher's company. Hardee's flipped some of the locations to their brand before eventually deciding to sell off the assets. Many old Roy Rogers locations became Boston Markets or McDonald's or something else.
But there's still some nostalgia for Roy Rogers, and Plamondon says that's fueling the restaurant's current expansion. Count me among these people: My friends and I used to take road trips to Roys locations in Westminster or Forest Hill (since closed, R.I.P.) for Gold Rush chicken sandwiches (breaded patty, Monterey Jack cheese, bacon, and honey on a bun—seriously, it's legit) and holsters of fries, simply because we loved the place from when we were young.
As people see more Roy Rogers cropping up, they are asking—no, demanding—for one to be put closer to their home.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say not a week goes by—I probably wouldn't be exaggerating if I said not a day goes by—that a customer of ours, either through social media, email to us, or handwritten letters or comment cards that we have on every one of our tables in all of our restaurants says, 'Please open up in my hometown of' fill in the blank," says Plamondon.