The untold truth of Johnny Rockets

Hamburgers may have German origins, but the hamburger as we know it today is truly a symbol of American cuisine. If you need any more proof of that, just look at the sheer number of fast food burger options out there. There's a good chance you probably have at least half a dozen to choose from in relative proximity to where you live. Whereas fast food burgers are meant to be quick, cheap meals with pretty much zero employee flare, Johnny Rockets takes a different approach.

The California-founded, but Massachusetts-based burger chain is all about serving up freshly made hamburgers in a fun atmosphere that pays tribute to the heyday of soda shops. And to stand out even more from the competition, there's a good chance that if you visit, you'll witness the crew bust out some dance moves. It's this commitment to offering more than just a burger and fries — and we can't forget those milkshakes — that have helped Johnny Rockets bring a piece of Americana across the globe. From its early years to where the brand is today, this is the untold truth of Johnny Rockets.

The name 'Johnny Rockets' refers to an American folk hero

Johnny Rockets certainly stands out in a world of near countless burger chains with its '50s diner vibe, and even the name has a retro ring to it. As one might expect, the name "Johnny Rockets" is a nod to the past — and partly, the very distant past. According to Business View, founder Ronn Teitelbaum was a fan of the Americana appeal of the name "Johnny" and specifically borrowed it from the name of American folk hero Johnny Appleseed.

Teitelbaum could've, of course, named his burger joint Johnny Appleseed's, but that name doesn't exactly conjure up an image of burgers and fries, does it? Instead, Teitelbaum finished it off with "rockets" as a reference to the Oldsmobile 88 Rocket, a car that was only in production for four years and sported a rocket-like V-8 engine. Despite Johnny Rockets now being an international brand, its name is distinctly rooted in U.S. history.

Johnny Rockets has connections to the fashion world

It's not uncommon when looking back at the history of massive fast food chains to learn that the founders struggled before stumbling upon success. For example, KFC's Colonel Sanders couldn't hold down a job, and the McDonald brothers had a failed movie theater before opening their popular quick-service burger joint.

That wasn't exactly the case, however, with Johnny Rockets founder Ronn Teitelbaum.

Before he opened his first Johnny Rockets at age 48, Teitelbaum was already a successful businessman who had worked in real estate and launched a popular men's clothing retail business (via Sun Sentinel). With his business partner, Teitelbaum opened Eric Ross & Co. in posh Beverly Hills in 1967, and another store followed shortly after in Palm Beach. The stores were known for carrying pricy European suits and later designer jeans. In his obituary, the Los Angeles Times noted how in 1972, Teitelbaum nabbed a prestigious fashion industry award and eventually opened 25 Eric Ross & Co. stores in Japan.

Teitelbaum could have easily continued on with his growing retail empire, but instead, he decided to fulfill a childhood dream. In 1984, sold the business to launch Johnny Rockets.

Johnny Rockets was a hit from the start

Selling hamburgers may not be exactly the same as selling men's suits, but some concepts, like attention to detail, still apply. Teitelbaum reportedly took a meticulous, and some might even say extreme, approach in creating the authentic 1950s diner experience for his customers. This meant tracking down tabletop nickel-operated jukeboxes and reportedly combing through the trash of another restaurant with a flashlight to find out what brand of tuna it was using. It was that sort of commitment, though, that helped make the burger restaurant a hit early on.

When Johnny Rockets opened its doors on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles in the spring of 1986, it was greeted by waiting customers. So many customers showed up that it had to stay open until 5 a.m. to serve everyone. "I did not know I couldn't do $1 million [in sales the first year] with 20 seats in 840 square feet," Teitelbaum said in 1988. The restaurant was feeding around 700 people a day, and despite the frequent repairs needed to maintain its milkshake machines that dated back to the 1950s, Johnny Rockets thrived and soon opened more locations across the U.S.

Johnny Rockets wasted no time taking its American burger concept global

Johnny Rockets might be an American brand that stakes its reputation on creating a one-of-a-kind American burger experience, but it's hardly limited itself to the United States. Whereas lesser burger chains have waited decades before making the international jump, Johnny Rockets did so in a mere three years. By 1989, Teitelbaum had opened a restaurant in Tokyo, and a year later he was serving burgers and shakes in London. Even since its founder's death in 2000, Johnny Rockets has continued its global growth, and in late 2015, it set its sights on Morocco, South Africa, Sweden, and Australia. According to a QSR article, this was part of a massive expansion plan to open 49 restaurants that would put Johnny Rockets on every continent except Antarctica (Keep wishing, Antarctica scientists!).

Such a far-reaching expansion means that a Johnny Rockets globe-trotter could technically visit a restaurant in Chile, before stopping off for fries in Nigeria, scarfing down some burgers in Norway, and then order up milkshakes across in Qatar or Bangladesh. The brand's president of global operations, James Walker, touted that Johnny Rockets had "grown tremendously" with 61 new restaurants in 2016. As of 2019, the chain had 178 international locations spread across 26 countries.

Singing and dancing is a job requirement at Johnny Rockets

If you're thinking about applying for a job at Johnny Rockets with the thought that it'll be like any other waiting job, you had better think again. The place has a bit of a "wallflowers need not apply" mentality and stresses on its website that employees — which are called "rocketeers," btw — should have "dynamic" and "outgoing" personalities. Oh, and you had better be down with dancing and singing, too, because that's part of the Johnny Rockets customer experience.

As Nation's Restaurant News noted, Johnny Rockets employees from Moscow to Bahrain regularly sing and dance to songs like "Stayin' Alive" and "Footloose." As then-president John Fuller told CBS in 2011, it's all about creating an experience that customers won't find at other burger chains. "Johnny Rockets represents a separate time — a more carefree time," Fuller said. "It's the kind of place where you can go in and relax and get away from it all. We're a trouble-free spot. We sell food, friendliness, and a simpler time." Fuller confessed that even Justin Bieber once jumped in on the dancing action.

The dancing and singing waitstaff has also been a way for Johnny Rockets to stand out on social media (although some locations place less emphasis on dancing than others). The brand's Instagram page is full of videos of fans and waitstaff dancing, and the restaurant has even offered $100 gift cards for the best Johnny Rockets dance posted to TikTok.

Anthony Bourdain wasn't a fan of Johnny Rockets

While Justin Bieber might be a Johnny Rockets fan, that's certainly not the case for all celebrities. One celebrity who was most certainly not impressed with the burgers at Johnny Rockets was Anthony Bourdain. The late TV personality didn't simply think the burgers were "meh" but went so far as to describe his sad meal as "soul-destroying." Ouch. And this is coming from a guy who literally ate a warthog's anus.

So what could have caused Bourdain to have such a "soul-destroying" experience at Johnny Rockets? Bourdain wasn't visiting the restaurant with one of his TV shows, but instead was merely trying to grab a bite to eat in an airport. As Bourdain recalled during an interview, the restaurant was deserted except for him and the staff, and he watched in disappointment as his sad meal of a "cold burger" and "pre-cooked" fries was assembled. From there, the staff watched him eat it and everyone "[shared] this moment of perfect misery," Bourdain said, before adding that the misery had lingered with him for over three years (via Eater).

It's probably safe to assume that dancing and belting out a Bee Gee's tune wouldn't have made Bourdain's meal any less miserable.

Aretha Franklin also had a bad experience at Johnny Rockets

While we're on the subject of late celebrities who had a bad Johnny Rockets experience, let's add Aretha Franklin to that list. While the Queen of Soul didn't share a misery meal with the crew of Johnny Rockets, she was basically given the boot by a crew member. Franklin was picking up a to-go order from Johnny Rockets in Niagra Falls, Ontario, when she decided to take a seat to eat her burger. That's when she was reportedly "screamed at" by a waitress who said she had to stand in the perimeter because it was a takeout order.

Not surprisingly, Franklin wasn't pleased with the lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T and said, "No one should be addressed this way, whether a celebrity or not." The restaurant's franchise owner told reporters that he was sorry for the way Franklin was treated and attributed the bad customer service to a "new and very young employee."

Unlike Bourdain, Franklin didn't let the bad service sour her love of Johnny Rockets and vowed to continue visiting other locations: "This experience in Niagara Falls will not stop my enjoyment of burgers and cherry Cokes, and talking to the classy and friendly people at Johnny Rockets."

Johnny Rockets has employed a ketchup artist

Other restaurants may use hokey mascots to drum up attention for their food, but Johnny Rockets has taken a different approach. In 2013, a Johnny Rockets location in Santa Monica decided to salute American presidents for President's Day by hiring a ketchup artist. If you've never witnessed a ketchup artist, it's basically exactly what it sounds like, only rather than paint, ketchup is their medium of choice.

Artist Cynthia Kostylo was tasked with creating a tomato-based masterpiece and painting — or to be more accurate, squirting — a landscape of Mount Rushmore. The chain is known for serving ketchup smiley faces with fry orders, but Kostylo's art is obviously a bit more complicated. The artist visits various Johnny Rockets around the country to promote specific locations, often with ketchup paintings relevant to the location. For example, her visit to a Las Vegas Johnny Rockets resulted in a showgirl, and she painted the Statue of Liberty when in New York City.

You can enjoy Johnny Rockets while at sea

Sure, you can find Johnny Rockets in airports or at your local mall, but were you aware that you can also enjoy the restaurant's burgers and malts in the middle of the ocean? That's right, fans of the burger chain can find Johnny Rockets floating in international waters aboard Royal Caribbean cruise ships.

In 1999, Johnny Rockets and Royal Caribbean struck up a deal and launched the first restaurant aboard the fleet's Voyager of the Seas cruise ship. Just like the land-based restaurants, the cruise ship versions of Johnny Rockets still sport the 1950s diner vibes — complete with red vinyl seats and jukeboxes. While some restaurants are fully enclosed diners, others have a more open-air set-up on the ship's pool deck. The restaurants can be found on a dozen of Royal Caribbean's ships, though the prices are a bit different than what customers of the regular locations might be accustomed to.

While some cruise ship versions of Johnny rockets are just like a normal restaurant with each item having a specific cost, others operate with a flat charge, sort of like a buffet. Patrons pay $6.95 and can order as much as they want from the menu — except milkshakes and other drinks. Unfortunately, those cost extra.

Some Johnny Rockets restaurants phased out the retro look

Depending on which Johnny Rockets you visit, you may notice it's not quite as retro as it once looked. Like so many other chains, Johnny Rockets has set its sights on attracting millennials, and considering that this customer base was born decades after the 1950s, a diner out of the Eisenhower era doesn't exactly scream hip. In 2016, it was announced that a location in Syracuse, New York, would be the first restaurant to get a modern makeover. "We were showing our age. We were looking a little old; a little tired," then-CEO Charles Bruce told The Orange County Register.

This meant that the red vinyl seats were swapped with dark-colored booths surrounded by wood planking and a white brick veneer. Fluorescent lighting was traded for industrial caged pendants, and vintage art on the walls was replaced for wall art that reminded customers of the chain's "fresh, farm to table" food. Crew members were also given a makeover with their soda shop paper hats traded for white oxford shirts and dark denim jeans. Those once-iconic jukeboxes were presumably hauled off to a forgotten storage locker. "Someone dancing isn't really relevant these days," Bruce said of the change.

Here's the thing, though. Bruce's time with Johnny Rockets wasn't particularly lengthy, and by July 2016, the chain had a new burger boss. In January 2020, the chain also announced that some restaurants would be keeping the retro look — complete with dancing waitstaff.

Johnny Rockets occasionally gives away free shakes and cash prizes

Johnny Rockets is known for its hand-spun milkshakes, and the chain reportedly goes through around 815,000 gallons of ice cream to serve up over eight million of them each year. While the usual suspects of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry are always available, the chain occasionally offers limited-time offerings like its Extreme Cake Shake, launched in June 2019, in addition to deluxe flavors such as peanut butter banana and cookies and cream. Even sweeter? Fans have had the opportunity to scoop up these shakes for free, or at least at a discount.

In September 2019, Johnny Rockets announced that in celebration of National Shake Month — because of course, that's a thing — it would be offering "Shake Time" happy hours. Patrons of Johnny Rockets were able to enjoy half-price shakes Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Earlier that year, the burger chain also gave away free milkshakes with the purchase of an entree for National Ice Cream Day. But wait, the deals didn't stop there! If half-price shakes weren't enough, Johnny Rockets also ran a "Shake, Sip & Smile" photo contest inviting customers to share a photo of them enjoying their milkshake. Fans were then called upon to vote for their favorite submission with the winner receiving $250 and free milkshakes for a year.

You won't find any microwaves in the kitchens at Johnny Rockets

When people go out to eat and spend their hard-earned money, they expect a fresh meal. Unfortunately, that's not always what ends up on their plate, and it's pretty common for restaurants to use microwaves to serve up pre-made food. Thankfully, this isn't the case at Johnny Rockets, and contrary to Anthony Bourdain's claims, the chain adheres to a strict cooked-to-order system with its burgers and fries. "They know it's coming fresh from the griddle," CEO George Michel stated in a press release. "That's why our kitchens are open kitchens. It's not like we have microwaves. It's not like we have holding equipment to heat chicken and meat."

This does mean that customers might have to wait a little longer for their burgers than at a typical fast food joint with a drive-thru, but Michel said most customers are okay with that "because they know they're getting something different." Even the chain's Gardein Black Bean Burger is cooked on the grill. When a vegetarian resource blog reached out to ask if it was possible to get a veggie burger microwaved, they too were told that Johnny Rockets restaurants were "not equipped with microwaves." If you want a burger from the microwave (why?), you'll just have to look elsewhere.

Another burger chain is buying Johnny Rockets

Johnny Rockets has stood as an independent burger chain since it first opened, but times change. In August 2020, it was announced that another burger chain with California roots would be adding the Johnny Rockets empire to its plate. FAT Brands, which owns Fatburger, agreed to purchase Johnny Rockets for $25 million (via CNN). 

Fans of the retro burger chain shouldn't worry — Fat Burger has no plans to convert any existing Johnny Rockets locations. This doesn't mean, however, that some changes won't be coming to the Johnny Rockets menu. Shakes and burgers won't be going away, of course, but it is possible some new meatless burgers will be joining the brand's black bean burger. It's been well-documented that plant-based burgers like Beyond Burger are the new trend with burger chains, and FAT Brands CEO Andy Wiederhorn said he's "eager to take the brand to new heights." There will still be plenty of beef on the Johnny Rockets menu. After all, it is being bought by a company named Fatburger.