People lined up at a Roy Rogers in the company’s HQ base of Frederick, Md., waiting to meet Cal Ripken Jr.
Courtesy of Roy Rogers

The Roy Rogers Revival Is Fueled by Roadside Rest Stops and Its Classic Menu

A devoted fan base saved a beloved fast food purveyor from extinction.
June 2, 2019

While Burger King devises new ways to troll McDonald’s, Roy Rogers restaurants are happily preaching “Family Values. Family Business.” The quick-service restaurant chain known for quarter-pound cheeseburgers, roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken, and an unlimited “Fixin’s Bar” is on the comeback trail.

After years spent in a state of perpetual fast-food free fall, a brand that once dominated the East Coast casual dining scene with over 600 locations is reminding America there is power in nostalgic dining experiences. With 48 locations and plans to return to previously vacated regions such as Long Island, N.Y., the timing for a resurgence could not be better.

In October 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that found during a three-year period from 2013 to 2016, almost 37% of U.S. adults—an estimated 84.8 million people—ate fast food on any given day. Survey results also revealed that the percentage of adults who consumed fast food decreased with age, with 44.9% of adults ages 20 to 39 reporting they ate fast on any given day as opposed to 37.7% among adults ages 40 to 59, and 24.1% among adults ages 60 and over.

What’s Old Is New Again

With quick-service establishments firmly intertwined in the fabric of everyday American life, and a generation of young diners on the lookout for economical dining options, a business that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 is poised to break out of regional cult status and back into the national spotlight. However, for those whose childhood didn’t include dipping Holster Fries into small paper cups filled with horseradish sauce, the sentimental appeal of a fast-food chain might be lost until you realize how a devoted fan base saved a beloved house of nourishment from extinction.

Instead of adding stroopwafel shakes and meatless burgers to its menu, Roy Rogers Restaurants stayed relevant by embracing classic dishes. Fans affectionately refer to the menu of fried chicken, roast beef, and burgers as the “holy trio.” The restaurant’s ability to make all three crowd favorites is something other chains have yet to master. Baked beans, mashed potatoes, and creamed chipped beef and biscuits are some of the sides and breakfast items you’ll find on this menu.

However, the most recognizable feature and one that would cause a riot if it were ever removed, is Roy’s Fixin’s Bar. Installed in the 1970s, what started as a standard salad bar turned into one offering customers an endless amount of toppings to dress their sandwiches. At the time, the idea that customers could personalize food by choosing their own amount of endless pickles, onions, and other toppings was innovative. The bold move encouraged the idea that every member of the family could find something he or she liked here.

The Roy Rogers Fixin’s Bar offers endless toppings for sandwiches.
Courtesy of C. Kurt Holter/Roy Rogers

Now, in an age where many fast-casual spots charge extra for toppings or provide a paltry amount, the idea of unlimited free toppings is even more appealing. “If modern online search habits have taught us anything, people search for what they crave,” says David “Rev” Ciancio, a B2B hospitality marketer and burger fanatic whose credits include launching New York Burger Week.

Searching for food is something fans of Roy Rogers are familiar with—primarily because a good portion of the chain’s locations are at roadside rest stops. “The Gold Rush Chicken Sandwich is my go-to rest-stop food,” says longtime customer Mike Barlettano. Fueling up on food during road trips at roadside food courts may not always appear in Instagram photos, but the willingness to embrace local culture no matter where they are located has always made Roy Rogers Restaurants a true cowboy in the fast-food industry.

“Fortunately, many who saw Roy Rogers disappear from their local communities were reassured of its continued existence thanks to our long-standing presence in many travel plazas throughout the Mid-Atlantic,” says Jim Plamondon, co-owner of the Roy Rogers Franchise Co. “Seeing the Roy Rogers logo along highways and at these facilities and having the opportunity to continue enjoying their favorites from our menu kept the fires burning in the hearts of our fans.”

A Hero’s Origin Story

Naturally, there’s an origin story that makes sense of a western-themed restaurant chain becoming legendary in the Mid-Atlantic region. While versions of the original Colonel Harland Sanders have consistently made appearances in KFC commercials throughout the years, finding someone who remembers an actual Roy Rogers Restaurants commercial starring Roy Rogers might be more difficult. The late actor and singer, looking to become involved in restaurants, licensed his name to the Marriott Corp. in 1968, as one of Marriott’s board members had a connection to the star’s agent. Marriott was interested in expanding its growing restaurant business, but its acquisition of RoBee’s House of Beef proved to incite an actual beef with Arby’s, who claimed trademark infringement. Marriott quickly adopted the Roy Rogers moniker to replace RoBee’s in order to resolve the legal dispute.

However, outside of occasional commercials and personal appearances, the actor did not have a direct impact on business decisions. Those fell into the hands of individuals like Pete Plamondon Sr., whose sons Jim and Pete Jr. are now leading the brand’s resurgence. “My family—including myself, my brother, Pete Plamondon Jr., and our father, Pete Plamondon Sr.—has been affiliated with Roy Rogers from day one, back in 1968,” says Jim Plamondon. “At that time, our dad was an executive at Marriott Corporation, and he played an integral role in the launch of the Roy Rogers brand.”

Robbie Willis, a test kitchen and training store manager at the Roy Rogers in Frederick, Md., slices roast beef.
Courtesy of Roy Rogers

In 1982, Roy Rogers expanded its presence throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic when Marriott acquired and converted National Football League Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti’s restaurants, Gino’s. Throughout the decade, the brand continued to grow. However, the same tactics that led to the restaurant’s expansion ultimately led to its decline. In 1990, Marriott decided to exit the restaurant business and sold Roy Rogers to Hardee’s for $365 million. Throughout the 1990s, many Roy Rogers locations were turned into Hardee’s, while others were sold to operators who turned them into McDonald’s and Wendy’s, among other fast-food operations. “The new owners’ plans for their acquisition, however, didn’t involve sustaining or strengthening the Roy Rogers brand,” Jim Plamondon says. “Rather, they intended to convert them all to Hardee’s restaurants. But when that strategy failed, they opted to sell off or close many locations, leaving a skeletal and poorly supported Roy Rogers chain in the wake.”

An endangered species by the early 2000s, the company—under the guidance of the Plamondon family—bought out the Roy Rogers brand and rights to franchise it from Hardee’s in 2002. The company spent the next decade focusing on building up its corporate-owned locations before offering franchise opportunities several years ago.

Cal Ripken Jr. at Roy Rogers as part of its 50th anniversary campaign.
Courtesy of Roy Rogers

While the menu may not have changed much, the brand has been refreshed in other ways. The addition of Wi-Fi, communal tables, and upgraded decor at various locations has helped bring Roy Rogers Restaurants up to speed with the expectations of today’s customers. As it did over 50 years ago, the company partnered with another national icon—this time baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr.—to promote its business.

Though the company is riding a positive wave for the time being, it will have to continue to innovate in order to keep its loyal fan base appeased. “When consumers discover a business through online search or recommendations, they then hop over to social media to see what the brand is about and what the food is like,” Ciancio says. “While social media is a lagging indicator of interest, providing an awesome experience socially gives confidence that an awesome experience is to be had in stores.”

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