What Happens When a Beloved Regional Chain Goes National?
Beef-A-Roo is the best fast food restaurant you’ve probably never heard of. Founded in Rockford, Illinois, in 1967, the mini-chain specializes in roast beef sandwiches, milkshakes, cheese fries, and a plethora of vegetarian options—they were doing plant-based burgers before Impossible meat was even born. As someone who grew up in the area, I made Beef-A-Roo an integral part of my life. When I would have a bad day at school, my mom would take me through the Beef-A-Roo drive-thru. My high school boyfriend incorporated Beef-A-Roo into a promposal. Every time I go back home I need to get a helping of cheese fries and a strawberry milkshake, or else what’s even the point of being in the greater Rockford area?
I always do what I can to spread the gospel of Beef-A-Roo, recommending it to anyone who may be passing by, sharing the incredible cowboy–themed commercials with everyone I can. Soon, it will be even easier for others to try the restaurant’s beloved beef and sides without making the trek to the Rock River Valley. That’s right, Beef-A-Roo is franchising.
The news brought on a wave of emotions: excitement at the prospect of more folks getting to experience the joy of Beef-A-Roo immediately gave way to fear of what expanding would mean for my sacred brand. Will the cheese fries be just as cheesy? Will the interior of the new locations look and feel the same? Will the singing cowboy still be at the center of all the advertising? I reached out to Austin Capoferi, President of Beef-A-Roo Franchising and NEXT Brands and Development, to get some answers.
When I asked Capoferi what his go-to Beef-A-Roo order is, he said Loaded Fries and the Wild West Beef sandwich. This was all the info I needed to know he was legit, a true Roo-head who knows what makes this place so great. And Capoferi says the people they’ll bring on as franchisees will also fully understand the brand and keep the family feel that’s carried the original restaurants for more than 50 years.
“We’re not just going to hand these off to franchisees who are just in it to make a buck,” Capoferi says. “Obviously that’s every franchisee’s goal, is they’re getting into this to make money, but we screen these franchisees to make sure that we have that very close relationship with them.”
The company first tried out a franchise in West Dundee, Illinois to see if there was appeal for the brand beyond the Rockford area. It was a success—the next franchise is slated to open in Rose City, Michigan later this year. But they’re doing things a little differently to make the plan more financially attractive to potential franchisees. Instead of building out entire restaurants from scratch in various cities, the company is retrofitting shipping containers with the same equipment as the currently operating stores and plopping them down, ready-to-open. The Rose City location, for example, is being set up in an Ace Hardware parking lot.
“As long as these, we call them pads, where we’re putting them in these parking lots have electric, sewer, water, gas that we can hook up to, we can have one of these things built and ready to open eight weeks after the permitting process is done,” Capoferi says. “Our goal is to make these and basically drop them in, turnkey ready for the franchisees to open and operate their business.”
This, so far, is the biggest difference from the footprint of the original locations, each of which was built to fit a different theme—’50s diner, northwoods cabin, firehouse, train station—both in the shape of the building itself and with the decor on the inside. In its new iteration, all Beef-A-Roos will look the same. Still, maybe we can just accept that “shipping container” is the new theme—the unconventional architecture still feels true to the Beef-A-Roo way.
All the menus will contain the same items made with the same supplies, and it seems that things are moving at a reasonable enough pace that quality won’t be sacrificed for quantity (for now, at least). The next battle will be an emotional one: How will people like me, who feel a personal connection to this chain, and even a certain ownership, respond to the food suddenly becoming ubiquitous? Probably, it’s safe to say, by arguing that the original Beef-A-Roo is the best one, of course.
In a few years when some more locations pop up we can check in and see if anything heinous has tarnished the beloved brand, but for now I’m optimistic and excited for more folks to fall in love with a Roo beef and cheddar. We’ve seen success with the expansion of brands that are now household names that are still highly praised like Jersey Mike’s, Culvers, and Shake Shack, so why not Beef-A-Roo?
Where the next locations pop up depend on who wants to buy a franchise. Anyone else in Chicago want to go in on one?