Review: The NEW Johnny Rockets
JFG Nation, I had never heard of Johnny Rockets until I was 23 years old. I grew up in Upstate New York, where apparently the closest Johnny Rockets are over an hour away in either direction from my hometown. Heck, beyond knowing what Johnny Rockets was, I’d never even heard of a DINER until I got to college. The whole concept of a 50’s diner with neon and jukeboxes and milkshakes did not exist in my town, and my only point of reference for that type of setting was Archie comics and the shows “Rags to Riches” and “Happy Days.”
Fast forward to my law school days in DC, over a decade ago, where my buddy Sean tricked me into picking his sister up from Union Station. Once we got there and met his sister, they were like, “Hey, let’s have dinner at Johnny Rockets.” All I could think was, “Dude, it’s Tuesday and I have homework. Why the hell are we stopping at some random diner joint in the middle of a train station when I would assume your sister wants to get to your place and put down her luggage and relax?” But nope – we sat there for the next hour eating burgers and milkshakes until finally we left Union Station, drove back to my house, walked in…to find a birthday surprise party for me. Ah, THAT’S why we stopped for Johnny Rockets. And that’s the LAST time I stepped foot in a Johnny Rockets, almost 13 years ago.
Until last Friday.
Johnny Rockets reached out to me, and a bunch of other DC food people, to come see their newly designed space in Georgetown. Now, like I said, I knew NOTHING ABOUT Johnny Rockets. I didn’t know they were an international restaurant franchise. I didn’t even know they HAD a space in Georgetown. But I do like burgers. So – OFF I WENT!
Johnny Rockets is celebrating their 30th anniversary, they have gone for a TOTAL rebranding/redesign. When I walked in, GONE were jukeboxes, the dancing/singing waiters, the bowties, the soda fountain uniforms.
IN was a more modern retro look. Clean lines. Dark wood. White brick. A simplified grey and red color motif. Servers wore dark bottoms, white tops, and sometimes a red Johnny Rockets hat. Pastels and neon – OUT. The industrial look with lights accented with red? IN.
I got a chance to talk to Chief Marketing Officer Joel Bulger, and he said the rebranding was put into gear a little over a year ago. The reasons were simple and straightforward: Johnny Rockets needed to catch up to the modern era. CMO Bulger informed me that Johnny Rockets was a 50’s style diner, and kids these days have NO point of reference for what the 50’s were. He joked that his daughter had a retro day at school and dressed in 90’s gear. As someone who went to high school in the 90’s, that statement made me want to curl up into a ball and weep. Holy eff – is Pearl Jam and NSYNC and the VMAs and Jock Jams – is that stuff RETRO now??? Excuse me while I punch a wall.
But he’s totally correct – the 50’s were a long long time ago, and a restaurant designed for that era makes no sense now. Nostalgia only gets you so far. The new look featured bold colors and a wallpaper that focused on THE FOOD. CMO Bulger told me they wanted to emphasize the pluses of why people were there: THE FOOD. So the wall was splashed with mentions of 100% never frozen beef burgers. Hand spun shakes. Cage free. Thick cut. Farm to table. Buzz word buzz word buzz word. If you’re not emphasizing FRESH, you are losing cash. Just ask McDonalds why they think Panera is doing so well. It ain’t a coincidence.
So I give Johnny Rockets a lot of credit. Tear it down, build it back up. First, the design. And then second, THE FOOD. Now they have a new executive Chef named Calvin Harris (no, not that one, although I suppose it wouldn’t shock me if the world famous DJ also spun a good shake). Educated by the Culinary Institute of America, Harris comes to Johnny Rockets having served previous stints at BK, Arby’s, and TGIFridays.
Ok then – new look, new food pedigree. I came to EAT. What cookin’, JR?
Sorry, I got lost in an information wormhole there – I get so geeked up about this stuff! Let’s rewind back to when I walked up to the doors at the new Georgetown Johnny Rockets. This sign was the first thing I saw: POKEMON MILKSHAKE HAPPY HOURS. What the. I like the hustle, JR. Lure them in with Charmander, and plant their butts with ice cream. Works for me – and I don’t even play Pokemon Go. But ½ price shakes? Giddyup.
As soon as I sat down at the counter, my server K. insisted I try the new Caramel Twix Shake. He was trying to sell me on it when I cut him off. Dude, you don’t have to tell me twice. BRING IT.
OOOH YEAH. Vanilla ice cream, blended with Twix, caramel, chocolate, whipped cream, more Twix at the bottom of the glass. What’s not to like?
It was sweet, creamy, and delicious. The flavor was, unsurprisingly, not too complex – just straightforward flavors we are all familiar with. Vanilla ice cream with sweet sauces and some crunchy candy inside. Needless to say, a great way to start off my meal…
…until then the manager came by and started to playfully argue with my server that he didn’t give me the best shake which, in his opinion, was the Strawberry Oreo Shake.
Next thing I knew, this monstrosity was before me. Strawberry ice cream blended with Oreo Cookies. Straightforward blend. I have a soft spot for strawberry and chocolate, so I accepted the shake, of course. The manager and server joked that their particular shake was the better shake, so I took a sip and…
…HOLY EFF. This strawberry shake was the BOMB DOT COM. Look, I know it wasn’t the special limited edition shake on the menu, but the Strabwery Oreo Shake was hands down the winner. Strong strawberry flavor, super creamy, blended JUST RIGHT, with lots of Oreo molecules sprinkled throughout like cookie sand to give me just the right amount of cookies and crème flavor. Wow.
My friend Jeannette said she grew up LOVING Johnny Rockets because of the milkshakes. I understood. I understood.
Then the deluge started happening. JR really wanted me to sample the menu, so the next thing I knew, a basket of fries and onion rings appeared before me with ranch dressing.
The fries were good – standard, nice oil flavor – but the Onion Rings were LEGIT. I’m a big onion ring guy, so I always look for that annoying onion slippage. You know, where you bite into the onion ring and then you pull the whole onion slice out? I HATE THAT. Didn’t happen here. Nice flavorful breading, not too greasy, and perfectly bite size. I was a fan.
Next it was time for me to order a burger. CMO Bulger explained that with a new chef came new concepts, and now Johnny Rockets would be rolling out new flavors of burgers and sandwiches every two months. So six times a year, customers can try six different limited edition menus (in addition to their standard lineup). My server explained that the rotating menu of three new sandwiches will always have a new chicken sandwich among them.
I opted for the Triple Cheese International Bacon Burger.
The new JR kitchen was open concept, and I could watch my food being prepared RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I watched as orders flew into the pass, and an expediter keep things pumping.
The assembly line system was interesting to watch. For one, these guys were moving FAST. Like, FAST FAST. They were swim moving around each other like they were NFL wide receivers.
JR has four proteins they make their burgers/sandwiches with – fresh 100% beef, chicken, ground turkey, and veggie burgers. The new JR also has a new way of cooking these proteins – double sided flat-top grills, almost like gigantic Panini presses. CMO Bulger explained these sped up cooking time IMMENSELY. The key was not drying anything out, obviously.
The cooks on the line wore red hats with FFBB sewn on the back. Server K. told me that stood for “Fanatical Focus on serving the Best Burgers.” That’s way more letters than FFBB, K.!
Remember how I said the cook time was quick? THEY WEREN’T KIDDING! I ordered the burger and it was literally at my fingertips in less than five minutes. Great googly moogly. No wonder they aren’t singing and dancing anymore – NO TIME.
And there it was: my Triple Cheese International Bacon Burger. The three cheeses were American, Cheddar, and Swiss. Thick cut bacon, a bit of mayo on the bun, plenty hot. But would it be overcooked?
Nope. It was pretty good. BETTER than pretty good. Burger was nice and juicy. Good meat flavor, not too salty, and the heavy dose of cheese REALLY came through. Honestly, that’s why I chose it – as GrubGrade has often pointed out, cheese on a burger gets lost ALL THE TIME. So I wanted enough cheese so I could TASTE the dairy, because I love cheese burgers. This burger was slathered in it, and it came through. I wish I could have this much cheese on every bacon cheeseburger.
Of course, I needed even more starch on the side of my meal, because Johnny Rockets was trying to kill me (happily). Tots, French fries, and sweet potato fries. All were great, because fried potatoes are great. Loved the sweet potato fries – some restaurants go REALLY sweet on sweet potato fries, sometimes dusting them with cinnamon and sugar. These stayed true to standard, with just a bit of salt. The umami was nice and balanced.
Now that I was fully brainwashed by the new marketing redesign, and fully exploding having sampled two shakes, a burger, and four different fried sides, I was ready to leave. And then this happened:
Well, JR, you sure know how to make an impression. I guess I’ll be back soon to try some more burgers.
And thus concludes me night out with Johnny Rockets! Thanks to JR and CMO Bulger for making the experience happen. It was clear they wanted to get me and other food voices in to spread the word, and well, I can see why. I like when any company looks at themselves in a mirror and says, “We need to change.” And when the changes are positive, even better. I like what JR has done here. This is now happening nationwide. Go and check it out.
Oh, and have the Strawberry Oreo Shake. TRUST ME.