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Fast Food of YesterYear: Roy Rogers

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I grew up next door to my Grandparents.  When I was very young, we would have weekly Sunday dinners at their house after coming home from church.  It was a late lunch really, but my Grandma would always roast a turkey, beef, or ham in the oven while we were at church and come home and make all of the side dishes.  While I was little, I really enjoyed these meals as the family would get together, and, as the youngest, the attention would mostly be focused on me!  

Plus, Grandma would always make me my own special dessert because she knew I didn't like the "pun'kin" pie she would often make!  She'd whip up a chocolate pudding pie in a Keebler mini graham cracker crust, and it would be all mine.

As we grew, my brother and I started playing ice hockey, and we'd spend more and more of our Sunday afternoons at the ice rink instead of home.  Eventually, the formal Sunday dinners went by the wayside.  Now that I'm older, I can see how having forced family time with people you spent all morning with at church could get old fast.  We'd spend all morning at church, come home and wait in Granny's living room for dinner to be ready.  Then, we'd have to stall while we waited for my one Uncle who is late to everything.  Honestly, we told him lunch was at 1 just so we could eat before 2.

Of course, the three-course meal would be followed by the move back to the living room, where everyone would talk before drifting away to whatever hours of daylight were left. It was all delightful 1950s Andy Griffith meets the Walton's, but it was very time-consuming.

Don't get me wrong, that side of my family is pretty WASPY, but I'm quite proud of it.  My ancestors arrived in the 1600s, so folksy Americana tradition is ingrained in the family.  By the 1990s, though, like most of the country, my family didn't have much time for tradition.  When those Sunday dinners ended, one of the side effects caused one of the real true joys of my childhood... visiting Roy Rogers for lunch after church!  Instead of heading home or to the ice rink, we began stopping at Roy's once or twice a month, and my brother and I just loved it there.

I think the french fries at Roy's are my favorite fast-food french fries of all time.  They were always hot, crispy, and loaded with salt.  The burger bun was thick and wonderfully blended freshness with staleness.  To this day, the Fixin's Bar is the only place I ever really enjoyed eating chopped onions.  When we walked in with our parents, the smell of salt and deep-fried oil hung heavy in the air... it was fast-food heaven for 8-year-old me.

For whatever reason, my parents had decided we would go to church on the other side of the county, passing probably 15 different churches along the way.  It was about 30 minutes each direction, and the Roy Rogers was about 5 minutes from church, so it's not like we'd ever drive over JUST for Roy's. It was in the parking lot of the only Toys R Us in town too, so it was often a double whammy for my parents when we begged them to take us to one or the other.

More often than not, while we stood in line to order, my brother and I would get in trouble for swinging on the wood and brass railings that made up the queue.  After getting yelled at, we'd hit up the bathroom while they finished ordering.  I'm not sure why, but I remember the two of us running to the men's room a lot.  I know we always would race or play tag in the hallway to the bathrooms, or perhaps it was just because it was one of the few places my parents let us out of their sight, but, nonetheless, I remember the two of us horsing around near the bathrooms a lot.  Plus, we had spent an hour or more at church, so it was often a much needed potty break.

Let's look at a little Roy's history, shall we?

Roy's was founded on February 12, 1968, when the Marriott Corporation acquired the "RoBee's House of Beef" chain from Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Marriott had previously purchased Bob's Big Boy restaurant chain from The Azar Group, and the new RoBee's locations (only 16 existed) were first offered to Big Boy franchisees for expansion before the public.

Around then, RoBee's was sued by fellow roast beef chain Arby's over copyright infringement claiming that "RoBee's" sounded too much like "Arby's" and the very similar roast beef focused menus.  Bob's Big Boy founder Bob Wian, at the time a Marriott Board member, was personal friends with the famous television actor Roy Rogers.  Bob Wian knew Rogers was already interested in getting involved in the restaurant business, so he suggested Marriott reach out.  Roy readily accepted their offer, licensing his name and likeness to the restaurants and guaranteed paid public appearances.

The restaurant was initially called "Roy Rogers Roast Beef Sandwich."  Despite Arby's legal protests, Roy Rogers' Roast Beef Sandwich retained the RoBee's building design and southwestern motif that included a covered wagon logo very similar to Arby's.

The first Roy Rogers restaurant opened in April 1968 in Falls Church, Virginia.  By the end of 1968, rapid growth led to 56 units open and 39 still under construction.  Marriott optimistically predicted 700 or more Roy Rogers within four years, however, growth halted in 1970 when Marriott suspended any further franchising due to financial losses.  By the time the 4-year benchmark arrived, the projected 700 locations had only reached 172.  

In 1982, Marriott bought Gino's restaurant chain for $48.6 million. 180 of the 313 Gino's restaurants were quickly converted to Roy Rogers.

In 1990, Marriott sold the chain for $365 million to Hardee's.  Hardee's immediately began converting the franchises over to the Hardee's branding, but, due to massive losses in sales and fairly rabid customer protests, many were converted back to the Roy Roger's brand.  Before Hardee's purchased the chain, Roy's had cooked its french fries in beef tallow mixed in vegetable oil, but Hardee's replaced the tallow with vegetable shortening.  This changed the taste and texture of the fries and became a move very unfavorable with customers.  Hardee's also made an attempt at switching Roy's to a flame-broiled burger like Burger King, and this too failed to suit customer taste.

Roy's menu consisted primarily of hamburgers, roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken, several side dishes, and beverages.  Some locations also serve breakfast featuring mostly egg-based sandwiches.  Signature items at Roy Rogers are the Double-R Bar Burger (cheeseburger with ham) and the Gold Rush chicken sandwich (fried chicken breast with bacon, Monterey Jack cheese, and a honey-based BBQ sauce.)  Some of the side items at Roy's are french fries, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, and baked beans.

One of the main features of any Roy Rogers' locations is the Fixin's Bar, which features numerous condiments and toppings.  Sandwich items were served without any garnishments, and patrons then garnished their own food at The Fixin's Bar.  The items ranged from condiments like ketchup and BBQ sauce to toppings of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions.

Hardee's began selling the remaining locations to McDonald's, Wendy's, and Boston Chicken between 1994 and 1996.  This left two dozen free-standing locations, in addition to several operated by HMS Host in travel plazas alongside highways in the Northeast.  

In 2002, Imasco (the Hardee's parent company) sold the remaining Roy Rogers to Plamondon Enterprises, who relaunched as Roy Rogers Franchise Company, LLC.  

At its peak, the restaurant chain had over 600 locations, but, as of 2020, only 48 locations in six states in the Mid Atlantic and the North East remain.

Like a lot of things, the routine of going on Sundays after church ended, and our trips to Roy's grew further and further apart.  With the way kids tell time, the era where it seemed like we went to Roy's frequently for years probably was only 6 months or so.

Then one day, when I was in middle school, it was gone.  It had to be in the fall of 1996 because I'm pretty sure we found out it closed on the same trip across town to Toys R Us.  I had begged my Mom to drive me over so I could buy the new WCW game for Nintendo 64.  Secretly, I had hoped that we would stop for lunch at Roy's on the way home, but my Mother and I were stunned to see the "Closed" sign.  Months later, it reopened as a Wendy's.

Wendy's?  What do we need a new Wendy's for?  We had one of those already much closer to home!

The only Roy Rogers that I know of in my area these days is at a rest area on the New York State Thruway just south of Albany.  My wife and I ate there nearly a decade ago on our way to my brother's wedding, and I stopped once or twice on my way north when I worked for an airline based out of the Albany airport.  It, like the remaining Roy Rogers' at travel plazas across the North East, is served cafeteria-style with premade sandwiches and fries that you take from a rack, place on your tray, and slide down to the cashier like a high school lunchroom.

One of these days, I'll have to take a ride up the New York State Thruway and introduce my little girl to some of the best fast food my nostalgic heart remembers.