(Updated at 4:20 p.m.) On an April day in 1968, Roy “King of the Cowboys” Rogers and his wife — “Queen of the West” Dale Evans — appeared in front of thousands along Leesburg Pike in Bailey’s Crossroads to open America’s first Roy Rogers.
“Inside the shoppe, Roy and Dale served up hot Roast Beef sandwiches to the first several customers,” promotional materials said at the time. “Over 5,000 autographed pictures of Roy and Dale were passed out to customers.”
Yes, despite the Old West motif and being named after a movie star cowboy, the fast food chain known for its roast beef and fried chicken began in Fairfax County, opening its first restaurant at 5603 Leesburg Pike.
Today, it’s now a McDonald’s set to undergo a revamp.
The story behind how Roy Rogers came to be born in Fairfax County starts with J. Willard Marriott, founder of the once-local but now-international hotel chain.
“Mr. Marriott wanted to get into the fast food business,” Jim Plamondon, co-president of Roy Rogers restaurants, told FFXnow. “Just like what Ray Kroc was doing with McDonald’s.”
But fast food was hot in the 1960s, and Marriott, an experienced restaurant owner, wanted a bite of that market too. So, when a new roast beef franchise called “RoBee’s House of Beef” opened in the Midwest, Marriott decided to acquire it, Plamondon explained.
Plamondon knows this history intimately. His father, Peter Plamondon Sr., was an executive in charge of Marriott’s restaurant division at the time, and he helped the hotel company launch its fast food business.
However, legal reasons prevented the company from acquiring RoBee’s trademark, so they needed a new name.
“One of the people on [Marriott’s] board of directors…said ‘Well, I know the agent for Roy Rogers, the cowboy,'” Plamondon said. “[Rogers] was a rock star back then. I mean, he was huge. He was as big as any movie star you would name today.”
Rogers was also very amendable to licensing his image and name to merchandise and businesses. At one point in the mid-20th century, more than 400 products had Roy Rogers’s name on them — second only to Walt Disney, per Rogers’s official website
Marriott and Roy Rogers struck an agreement, and the new fast food restaurant took on the Hollywood cowboy’s name.
The location for the first Roy Rogers was likely chosen for its proximity to Marriott’s Arlington hotel and a major travel artery in Leesburg Pike (Route 7).
“It was a really busy area…lots of retail in the vicinity,” Plamondon said, adding that his colleagues said there was also a nearby small airport, a high school with a dedicated customer base, and a petting zoo “that was very popular.”
“The Barnum and Bailey circus, when they were in town, used to keep their animals there,” he said.
According to Marriott promotional materials, that first day in 1968 was marked by excitement for roast beef sandwiches and the two famous Hollywood stars.
“Roy, Dale, and J.W. Marroitt Jr., president of the Marriott corporation, officially opened the shoppe by unveiling a colorful neon sign,” the corporation’s “family newsletter” says. There was also an awning for a “car hop,” essentially a precursor to drive-thrus where servers would bring food out to park cars.
That restaurant was the beginning of a pretty successful fast-food chain. At its peak, there were nearly 650 Roy Rogers nationwide.
But in the 1990s, the restaurant hit tough times and began selling off locations to other fast food companies — including the original location on Leesburg Pike in the mid to late 1990s. After about three decades, America’s first Roy Rogers closed and was converted into a McDonald’s.
In recent years, the fast food chain has had a bit of a resurgence but on a much smaller scale.
Plamondon and his brother ended up buying back the Roy Rogers trademark in 2000, and now, there are 41 restaurants across the country. There are only two locations in Fairfax County, though, off of Richmond Highway in Woodlawn and on Belle View Blvd in Alexandria.
(Correction: The Woodlawn location was initially overlooked.)
While discussing the upcoming renovation of the county’s oldest McDonald’s, one Fairfax County planning commissioner mentioned the first Roy Rogers being in the county, even suggesting that a historic plaque could go up marking the location.
“It would be nice if they thought that was a good idea… some recognition of that being the first Roy Rogers restaurant,” Plamondon said. “Then again, I’m a bit biased.”
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