Hang on, Hardee's! Roy Rogers is riding to the rescue.
The 80-year-old cowboy legend, whose name was put out to pasture after Hardee's acquired the Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant chain in 1990, will soon be appearing on television inviting diners to mosey on back to Roy's.
Hardee's management won't announce until Monday what it will do with the signs over its restaurants in the Northeast, but don't bet on the Hardee's name remaining on former Roy Rogers restaurants here, except as a sidekick.
"They've approved the sign," said Joe Masci, a longtime franchisee who operates 12 once and future Roy Rogers restaurants in Carroll, Harford and Cecil counties. "It's going to be predominantly Roy Rogers, with the Hardee's strip across the bottom."
Mr. Masci, who had just received word from headquarters that the decision was final, was exuberant yesterday. "As soon as you put Roy Rogers back on the roof, you sell more food," he said.
Hardee's is openly contrite about unhorsing the crooning cowboy. It concedes that it underestimated the appeal of the Roy Rogers trademark and failed to listen to customers.
"We goofed," said W. Maurice Bridges, chief spokesman for Hardee's, which is owned by Rocky Mount, N.C.-based Hardee's Food Systems Inc. "We're not too proud to say we made a mistake."
Roy "Dusty" Rogers Jr., son of the actor and singer, said his father had "no hard feelings" over the decision to drop his name and was ready to saddle up as a spokesman for the company.
"They are going to use Dad extensively in their advertising," said the younger Mr. Rogers, speaking from the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, Calif. His father is still under contract with Hardee's, he said, "and we'll be glad to work with them."
Soon after Hardee's acquired Rockville-based Roy Rogers from Marriott Corp. two years ago for $365 million, it became clear that the decision to change the name was a blunder of New Coke proportions.
In the Baltimore-Washington area especially, the decision triggered a consumer revolt, and sales plunged.
When the acquisition was announced, analysts saw it as a natural fit. Hardee's had more then 4,000 restaurants around the country, mostly in the South and Midwest, but it was weak in the Northeast, where Roy Rogers had the bulk of its 648 outlets. But instead of building on Roy Rogers' tremendous regional strength, Hardee's decided to wipe out most vestiges of Roy's menu, along with the name and the trademark Fixins Bars.
"There wasn't a single item on that menu that was Roy Rogers except for chicken," said Mr. Masci, and even then customers swore it was no longer Roy's chicken. They hated the changes, and so did most of the franchisees, some of whom refused to make the switch.
"It was an expensive lesson," said Mr. Masci. "This is going to be a case study in the business schools for years."
It didn't take long for Hardee's Food Systems' parent company,Montreal-based Imasco Ltd., to catch on. Last summer, it said "Happy Trails" to Hardee's former managers and brought in a new president named Autry. (It's Robert, not Gene, and there's no relation).
Last autumn, the company quietly began bringing back items from the old Roy Rogers menu to its Hardee's restaurants in this region. Roy's hamburger replaced Hardee's version in his restaurants in October, Mr. Masci said, and now the Fixins Bars are back in all of them too.
The restaurants will keep Hardee's popular breakfast menu, along with a few other items, but the menus will be traditional Roy Rogers fare, Mr. Masci said. He added that company-owned Hardee's restaurants will adopt the new signs but that Hardee's franchisees who don't want to switch will be permitted to keep the Hardee's name.
There are about 250 Hardee's restaurants, including a few Roy Rogers restaurants that never changed names, in the Baltimore-Washington region, about 50 of them owned by franchisees.