The Plamondon brothers — Jim, left, and Pete Jr. — purchased the rights to the Roy Rogers brand and oversee a brand that encompasses 50 restaurants across six Mid-Atlantic states. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Reporter

Jim Plamondon seemed a good bet to become a member of the legal profession’s elite back in 1995.

A Notre Dame grad and George Washington University law school alum, he was a federal prosecutor when he chucked it all to sell roast beef sandwiches and fried chicken.

Quite a pivot. Or maybe not.

Jim, 52, and his brother, Pete Jr., 56, are the third generation of their family that has been in the hospitality business. Their father ran the Roy Rogers chain for what is now Marriott International and eventually owned 15 of the restaurants.

The sons grew up, joined their dad’s company and would eventually buy the restaurants from him. Later, they purchased the rights to the Roy Rogers brand and are in the midst of a slow resurrection of the chain.

Jim and Peter Plamondon at one of their Roy Rogers restaurants near their Plamondon Cos. headquarters in Frederick, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Plamondon Cos., as they call themselves, oversees a brand that encompasses 50 restaurants across six Mid-Atlantic states. Not bad, but well off the chain’s peak of 648 in its heyday.

Of the 50 existing Roy Rogers, 23 are owned directly by the brothers and 27 are owned by franchisees. Six more are opening this year.

“Dad was successful with these restaurants and did very well,” Jim said. “We had that bug.”

I am fascinated by the science of selling fast-food. As a junkie growing up in Upstate New York, I loved 55 cent Club Burgers and Big-R roast beef sandwiches at Carrols, which was the Syracuse-area version of McDonald’s.

Jim said his business is all about what he calls “the holy trio” of roast beef, fried chicken and burgers.

“People ask what sells the most. . . . It’s about a third, a third and a third for the main entrees,” he said.

Roy Rogers’s customer sweet spot is between the ages of 25 to 54, with a slightly above-average income that fits nicely in this market. There are no $1 coupons or kiddie playgrounds at RR. The average check in 2014 was $9.22, and about half the business is drive-through.

Jim is certainly mindful of the demons stalking the fast-food industry: sugar, obesity and cholesterol. He said a salad, roast beef sandwich and bottle of water keeps the calorie count under 500. My feeling: What’s the point of going to Roy Rogers without indulging?

He said the brand’s differentiator is real roast beef and a personal touch that includes a roving hostess (who keeps the trademark Fixin’s Bar fresh).

“We are somewhere between typical fast-food and fast-casual, like Panera, Chipotle and Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace,” Jim said. “We have a very loyal customer base.”

Plamondon Cos.’ Frederick, Md.-based hospitality empire also extends to hotels. The company and its investors own six of them, with three more on the way, stretching from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

The combined restaurant and hotel businesses employ 1,000 people and gross more than $100 million a year, with about $85 million of that coming out of the restaurant end. The brothers’ share of that gross from their non­franchised, corporate-owned restaurants is about $39 million.

I estimate that the brothers net a profit of more than $1 million off the restaurant trade alone, based on industry standards. Much of that goes back into the business. The brothers pay themselves a salary. The hotels are lucrative, as well, although they share those profits with numerous partners.

“You can set your own hours,” Jim said, but he added: “You are always working. We are visiting our businesses. We are hands-on owners, not absentee owners. We are in our restaurants and hotels every day.”

They learned that from their dad.

The Plamondon family’s love affair with the hospitality industry extends back to the 1940s, when their grandfather owned the Windswept Hotel in Vero Beach, Fla.

Their father, Pete Sr., now 84, worked summers at the Florida hotel and eventually worked for Marriott, the eponymous hospitality empire founded by a Washington-area family. Pete Sr. became the head of its restaurant division and was on the team when the company created the Roy Rogers chain in the 1960s.

I wanted to know how the Roy Rogers name came to stand for fried chicken and roast beef sandwiches.

According to Jim, who checked with his dad, Marriott wanted to launch a national restaurant chain back in the 1960s. It bought RoBee’s restaurants in Fort Wayne, Ind., but Marriott was unable to nail down the national RoBee’s naming rights. A Marriott board member suggested naming the chain after the television and movie cowboy Roy Rogers, whose agent was a friend of the board member’s.

Roy Rogers saddled up (he received licensing fees for lending his name), and the first Roy Rogers restaurant opened in Falls Church, Va., in April 1968. The brand expanded through the conversion of Marriott-owned Jr. Hot Shoppes restaurants and the acquisition of other restaurant chains. (Trivia note: The Plamondon family appeared in a Jr. Hot Shoppes television commercial.)

When Peter Sr. left Marriott in 1979, his package included financing for Roy Rogers restaurants that he planned to develop. He became a franchisee of Roy Rogers, opening the first store in August 1980 in Frederick, eventually building it into 15 franchises.

The Plamondons kept the franchises even after Marriott sold Roy Rogers to Hardee’s in 1990. (Hardee’s ultimately converted or sold off the 650 Roy Rogers in that deal.)

The Plamondon brothers joined their father’s business in the 1990s and eventually bought out their dad in 1998 through a 15-year financing deal. In the meantime, Pete Jr., a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, suggested that they use their capital to diversify into the hotel business.

In 1996, they built a Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel, a Marriott brand, in a corporate office park in Frederick.

“We didn’t know the future of Roy Rogers, and we were looking for a growth vehicle,” Jim said.

The brothers got a reassuring glimpse into RR’s future four years later. The “aha moment” came Dec. 22, 2000, when they opened a Roy Rogers in an old Burger King location in a strip center in Montgomery County, which had not seen a Roy Rogers restaurant in years.

“The lines were out both doors and were 30 people deep,” Jim said. “You would have thought we were giving the food away.

“My brother and I said to each other, ‘We need to buy this brand.’ ”

So they did, acquiring the rights to the brand in 2002 from the holding company of Hardee’s. With it came 70 restaurants, many of which were tired and had not paid royalties in years. Some of the owners were encouraged to try another brand.

Within a few years, they lowered the number of branded restaurants to 40, including the 15 owned by the brothers. They remodeled, reinvented service, and created a do-over on the image so the franchisees would start paying royalties and become fresh.

And as a bow to their cowboy namesake, the brothers called their reinvention “Project Trigger.”

That was the name of Roy Rogers’s horse.