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Ronn Teitelbaum; Men’s Clothier Founded Johnny Rockets Diners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he was 5, he went with his mother every midnight to pick up his father after work at Douglas Aircraft’s Santa Monica plant. It was during World War II, and the child liked the bright, clean, round-the-clock restaurants set up to accommodate workers in the war effort.

In particular, there was the Santa Monica malt shop called the Incline, with its friendly soda jerk and juicy hamburgers. If he ever opened a restaurant, the little boy decided, it would be just like that.

The diner died, but the dream never did.

After successful careers in real estate and high-end men’s clothing, the boy, who was by then 48, opened his restaurant on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue on June 6, 1986. And it had soda jerks who made malts and shakes the old-fashioned way, along with hand-shaped hamburgers, cherry Cokes and apple pie.

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He called his restaurant Johnny Rockets.

Ronn Teitelbaum, founder of the retro diner chain that now has 138 outlets in 25 states and nine countries, died Monday in Los Angeles of brain cancer. He was 61.

After studying briefly at Los Angeles City College, Teitelbaum drifted into real estate, and moved on to the retail clothing business in 1967 when he and a history professor friend, Berny Schwartz, opened Eric Ross & Co. in Beverly Hills.

Specializing in high-quality design--usually European--Teitelbaum sold suits and sport coats to a wealthy clientele that included Hugh Hefner. As the rich became more casual in the 1970s, Teitelbaum added well-cut designer jeans--at twice the price of jeans in chain stores.

He opened a second store in the equally well-heeled enclave of Palm Beach, Fla., and made a licensing arrangement with Mitsubishi that led to 25 Eric Ross Stores in Japan.

Teitelbaum’s penchant for quality clothing earned him a 1972 fashion industry Coty Award, usually reserved for designers and given only to a handful of retailers over the years.

In 1982, that search quality indirectly prompted Teitelbaum’s career switch from clothing to food. Searching for the exclusive maker of sweaters he had admired, the retailer tracked the knitwear manufacturer to a rustic hill town outside Milan--only to find him in contract talks with a Macy’s buyer.

“It was finished,” Teitelbaum said.

So he sold Eric Ross in 1984 and set about planning his dream restaurant--benefiting, he would reflect years later, from his ignorance.

“I did not know I couldn’t do $1 million [in sales the first year] with 20 seats in 840 square feet,” Teitelbaum told Nation’s Restaurant News in 1988. “I didn’t know people wouldn’t line up at midnight for a hamburger, fries and a malt.”

But when his restaurant’s doors opened, customers forsook California cuisine’s lean grilled fish and salads to occupy every one of Teitelbaum’s 20 red vinyl stools, and a line of patrons waited outside for shakes, burgers and fries. The little eatery had to stay open until 5 a.m. to accommodate its new fans.

Teitelbaum applied the same meticulousness to restaurants that he had to his clothing store. He tried all kinds of seasoning to get the burger flavors just right. When he liked a tuna sandwich served in another restaurant, he returned with a flashlight after hours and searched through its trash to find an empty tuna can so he could buy the same brand.

He found 30-year-old spindle mixers to make malts and shakes, and gladly provided for their frequent repairs. He searched for tabletop jukeboxes and had his friendly, white-clad wait staff supply nickels to play them.

Eventually, the wait staff adapted song and dance routines, using ketchup bottles as microphones, to go with the retro jukebox songs like “Great Balls of Fire.”

From the outset, the first Johnny Rockets fed 600 to 700 customers a day, and within its first year spawned clones in Westwood, Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills. Franchises followed in other cities--Atlanta, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago. In 1989, the chain went international with a diner in Tokyo and the next year added one in London.

As the chain grew, Teitelbaum applied his control not only to maintaining quality in each diner but also to upholding the integrity of his concept. He waged successful trademark cases to thwart imitators in other cities and even other countries, particularly Mexico.

In 1992, Teitelbaum brought in a former Taco Bell executive as president and limited his own titles to chairman and chief executive.

Three years later, Teitelbaum engineered the sale of his expanding chain to Carpenter Investment & Development Corp., remaining a minority stockholder, board member and creative consultant.

“Ronn Teitelbaum created more than a restaurant. He created a legacy,” said Michael R. Shumsky, current chairman and chief executive officer of the Irvine-based Johnny Rockets, in announcing Teitelbaum’s death. “His commitment to high standards and passion for excellence emanate in the continued popularity, success and growth of Johnny Rockets.”

Off duty, Teitelbaum could be seen dressed in leather astride his Harley-Davidson, or playing with his collection of hamburger toys. But only cancer could keep him from his favorite activity--work.

Asked by business colleagues over the years about his retirement plans or “exit strategy,” Teitelbaum’s inevitable answer was: “When I die.”

Teitelbaum is survived by his father, former Beverly Hills furrier Al Teitelbaum; two daughters, Jill and Nikki; a son, Nowell; and a sister, Juli.

Funeral services are scheduled for noon today at Pierce Bros. Westwood Village Memorial Park, 1218 Glendon Ave.

The family has requested that any memorial donations be made to the National Brain Tumor Foundation, 414 13th St. Suite 370, Oakland, CA 94612, or to UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation for Brain Cancer Research, in care of Dr. Timmothy Cloughesy, 710 Westwood Plaza Suite 1230, Los Angeles, CA 90095.


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