The New Year is almost here, thus it’s time for reflection. So I want to get into the Way-Back Machine and explore one of the feel-good places of my childhood. One of the reasons I enjoy going to the Johnny Rockets retro restaurants around town is that they have an old-fashioned soda fountain atmosphere that reminds me of my teenage years. It’s the kind of Happy Days place that you’d picture Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham serving the cool kids a burger and milkshake. Oh, I wasn’t one of the cool kids. You’d find me wearing an apron, making a malted and flipping burgers. My mom and dad owned A.J.’s Snack Shop at the Jersey Shore, and my work ethic comes from those long summer days behind the counter.
That’s why Johnny Rockets is a pleasant trip back in time for me. It’s not just the nostalgic décor and the jukebox playing the songs from my youth. It’s not even the best Philly Cheese Steaks with sizzling fried onions I’ve tasted since A.J.’s closed it’s grill (A.J.’s is now a bike shop run by my amazing sister Mary Lou).
The memories come from sitting at the counter and watching the waiters and waitresses serving all the hungry customers with a comfortable friendliness. They hustle to get your order right and serve it with pride. Having been in their shoes, I can appreciate that.
Now I haven’t been to all the 320 worldwide locations, but I’ve always had a positive experience at the places around Los Angels. They are in the neighborhood at Hollywood and Highland, Encino, and the new Johnny Rockets Sports Lounge at Universal CityWalk. Every Thursday night the CityWalk place has Karaoke Night just for fun.
That is why it was such a kick for me to see the restaurant company’s president and CEO, John Fuller, appear recently on the CBS reality show Undercover Boss. He struggled at making fries and working the grill at several of the Rockets on the East coast. Yep, the job is tougher than it looks. As a result of his experience in the trenches, Fuller has made it mandatory for every executive to work at least one week in a Rockets restaurant.
“The lessons I learned from the amazing employees who trained me were invaluable, and I don’t think there’s a more constructive way to understand the needs, than to work on the front lines,” Fuller said.
While undercover, Fuller saw that the folks at the franchises went out of their way to give everyone a positive experience.
“It’s a place for making memories,” he said.
Sometimes the servers will play the jukebox and dance to entertain the customers. That goes beyond good old-fashioned service.
They kick up their heels at the Farmer’s Market Rockets too. I’ve caught up with some of the Dancing with the Stars pros at the restaurant. Before rehearsals at the nearby studio, Mark Ballas and Derek Hough especially love the juicy hamburgers, but they don’t get up to dance.
For vegetarian customers, they offer a 100 percent soy Boca burger that is truly delicious. The fountain drinks really do harken back to the “Happy Days,” when folks could enjoy root beer floats, malts and great milkshakes.
Over the holidays it was nice to take my mother for a trip back in time at the CityWalk Rockets. The manager Alex was a dynamo, making sure everyone had good food and a great time. But for mom and me, the experience was like “going home,” except now we didn’t have to take the orders, work the grill, and serve everyone. Aah, nostalgia is fine, but let’s not over do it.
Happy New Year.