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Denny’s CEO on Bid to Become ‘America’s Diner’


Denny's (DENN) turns 60 this year. To celebrate the company is rethinking its brand in a bid to become "America's Diner." To pull it off CEO John Miller plans to build on what the company does best and change the lingering negative associations stemming from discrimination suits in the 1990s and 2000s.

It starts with the menu. I asked nearly 16,000 Twitter follows to tell me the first thing they think of when they hear Denny's. Of the hundreds of people who responded the overwhelming majority mentioned breakfast. Whether it's the catchy name or mouthwatering combination of cheese and hash browns, the Moons Over My Hammy seems to occupy a place in the semi-clogged arteries of Americans everywhere.

Tellingly not one person mentioned any other meal of the day. In short Denny's has a menu problem. Miller is all too aware of the problem.

"We've always sold a great breakfast but we want credibility in our beyond breakfast platform," he explains in the attached video. They started with burgers and moved into "Mom's Cooking Items" like spaghetti and steaks. They're offering whole grain rice with the steaks. Suffice it to say the company is pacing itself on moving away from comfort food staples.

A far bigger legacy issue are those of racial relations. Mention of past discrimination suits and allegations were the second most common response to the non-scientific survey. It's a tag Miller understands but he says it no longer applies. He's taking the issue on head-on.

"You have to be engaged, respectful and turn and face it. Problems don't go away on their own," Miller says. "First you have to make sure you have a clean nose."

Nine out of every ten Denny's are franchised and Miller says 46% of those franchisees are minorities. From the front through the kitchen all the way to the board room, he says Denny's is a standout when it comes to race relations.

As Miller sees it, convincing people Denny's welcomes customers of every creed and color is going to be a matter of time and walking the talk, not advertising.

The company also needs an overhaul in physical plant. One drawback of the heavily franchised model is getting the operators on board with capital improvements. The chain let franchisees get away without refreshing locations every seven years during the recession but it's making up for lost time. 40% of Denny's are awaiting updates after which Miller says the feel will be familiar but fresh.

Not that all of the locations are middle America. Denny's has a new location just off the Las Vegas strip that Miller says is as much artwork as diner. It has a wedding chapel in the back and is a "spirited place" located in a "little bit of an adult area part of Vegas."

Don't look for wedding chapels at the Denny's near you anytime soon. The revitalization is targeting "anybody who wants to take their family out to dine."

It's a sweeping ambition but Miller thinks a combination of comfort food and good PR just might get it done.

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