Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Start the 'Rocky' theme

Back when Nation’s Restaurant News was still covering Howard Johnson’s comeback attempts, our pages would be filled with stories about a crop of hip quick-service upstarts, akin to today’s fast-casual ventures. The young hopefuls included such brands as D’lites, a health concept, and G.D. Ritzy’s, an ice cream and hamburger specialist. The pizza segment seemed particularly fertile ground, with such promising up-and-comers as Godfather’s Pizza. And, of course, Rocky Rococo.

Named after a character in a Firesign Theater bit [explanatory note for readers under age 45: Firesign was a demented but highly intelligent comedy troupe in the 1960s and ‘70s, like a whacked out MadTV staff], Rocky had attitude, flavor, even an edge. In a day of white-bread restaurant concepts, it delivered a hint of cayenne. It was also a pioneer of such now-pronounced trends as co-branding, or what was then known as tandem restaurants. If memory serves me correctly, it even joined one of its units with a Wendy’s.

Like plenty of promising concepts before and after it, Rocky Rococo grew like Indiana corn. From a single store in Madison, Wis., it sprouted to 130 units before problems overshot it, and units started closing in the late 1980s. It would shrink to a skeleton of 30 stores.

But now comes word from its native Wisconsin that Rocky is ready to grow again. The chain, currently at 40 stores, added two in the recent past, and will fire up the ovens of a few more in 2009, according to a story in the Milwaukee Business Journal. The growth is coming from both franchising and corporate development.

The company is now headed by Trey Hester, the son of an early executive. According to the Business Journal story, founders Roger Brown and Wayne Mosley are still involved, though now as franchisees.

The story quotes Hester as saying he hopes to rebuild the chain back to 130 stores, moving slowly this time.

And look at that—with only an announcement of more stores to come, it’s already snagging coverage again.

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