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Always Open: Denny's Rise to the Top

pple pie. Baseball. Bald eagles. Few things are more iconically American than the diner: These humble restaurants set the scene for countless classic films, and evoke the timeless nostalgia of our memories. They are familiar. Without being there, one can still imagine what it smells, tastes, and feels like. Diners offer a delicious refuge from the fast current of life, a reliable spot to stop and breathe easy. And no one knows this better than Gene Harris, Senior Purchasing Manager of Denny’s, and his colleagues Sharon Lykins, Senior Director of Product Development, and Paul Spencer, Director of Denny’s Social Responsibility. These three bring legendary dishes to life for the monolithic diner.

With 1,700 locations in every corner of the USA and the world, Denny’s is the most quintessential, ubiquitous diner. Nearly everyone has been to a Denny’s, and if by some anomaly they haven’t, a quick follow-up reveals that most can still name at least a few of the famous entrees: The Grand Slam®, Moons Over My Hammy®, and The Lumberjack Slam®, among others.

Gene has seen firsthand the massive growth of the organization through the years, having recently celebrated a milestone 30-year anniversary with the company. His own story is as inspirational as the diners: Gene cut his teeth professionally working as an auto mechanic for two years before deciding to join the Navy as a cook in 1979.

“I ended up a cook on a submarine stationed in San Diego. I served on two different nuclear subs in the seven-and-a-half years that I was in,” Gene says. “I got out of the Navy on August 3rd of 1986 and went to work at Denny’s two weeks later. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Since then, Gene’s great attitude has seen him rise through the ranks quickly, holding leadership roles such as Restaurant Manager, General Manager, General Training Manager, Product Development Project Leader, Purchasing Agent, and Purchasing Manager, before succeeding in his current position as Senior Purchasing Manager.

“We use fresh produce whenever possible in our menu items because of the quality attributes it gives to a dish,” Sharon explains about the product development process for the abundance of menu options that Gene sources for. “Our guests associate freshness with health, and fresh produce boasts wonderful nutritional benefit and flavor.”

Expanding on what it takes to source “fresh” for these innovative menu programs, Gene explains that it starts with having an excellent 3rd Party Food Safety Audit score, paired with a good reputation. Denny’s puts emphasis on high-quality product and its priority on service and fair prices.

“We primarily work with independent produce distributors; people who are produce experts! We are interested in who their primary suppliers and growers are, as well as if they are using our approved produce processors. Ideally, we seek distributors who are large enough to service our needs, but also able to meet our special requirements,” Gene reveals. “I love the produce industry, especially the people. It’s a big family, just like Denny’s.”

In addition to these guidelines, it is Gene’s same appreciation for the possibilities he was provided throughout his own journey that him help steer the sourcing decisions he makes today.

“We seek out minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses who meet Denny’s high-quality and food safety standards,” he divulges about what the company seeks in its partners. “Many of our vendors are second- or third-generation, family-owned businesses with rich histories.”

This mentality is an ode to the American dream: Helping to level the playing field, and the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to leave a legacy through hard work, determination, and initiative. Gene’s own story is a parallel to the Denny’s story, the massive success of a simple ambition. Paul joins the conversation to pull back the curtain on what has kept this monolith thriving for the past 64 years.

“Our position as ‘America’s Diner’ is what differentiates us in the marketplace. What makes Denny’s unique is our ‘diner feel,’ not in just the physical sense, but more importantly in an emotional sense,” Paul explains to me about the nature of the enterprise. “It’s a place that is always open; that’s warm, comfortable, and welcoming; and serves up a variety of hearty, classic American food at a great value.”

As many good diners do, Denny’s has a rich history. In 1953, Founders Richard Jezak and Harold Butler opened the doors to their new enterprise in Lakewood, California, citing a modest mission: To serve the best cup of coffee, make the best donuts, give the best service, offer the best value, and stay open 24 hours a day.

Back then the concept was called Danny’s Donuts, and it was the first iteration of the establishment that would evolve to become the Denny’s we know and love today. 

That first Danny’s Donuts enjoyed an exceptional reception, becoming an instant hit for workers in the booming local industrial economy, with patrons frequently lined up around the block to grab donuts from the makers who they could watch through the giant windows.

The company expanded rapidly, quickly adding more items to its menu and changing its name to Danny’s Coffee Shopsfollowed by a snappy pivot to Denny’s Coffee Shopsto distinguish itself from another restaurant in the region. The enterprise finally landed on the moniker of Denny’s. Just six years later there were 20 more locations, and upon launching a successful franchising program, by its tenth anniversary the chain included 78 diners across seven western states. 

“We love to feed people. That is our purpose. Those are the words we live by; it is the reason we are in business, and that mantra drives our restaurant teams every day,” Paul summarizes. “Supporting that purpose is this set of guiding principles: Guests First, Embrace Openness, Proud of Heritage, Hungry to Win, and The Power of We.”

With these time-tested values and more than half a century under its belt, one could assume that the company is old-fashioned, but Denny’s has demonstrated its merits as a forward-thinking organization. The company knows how to keep up, having embarked on several quirky millennial-savvy campaigns, including The Grand Slams web series by the same creators of the oddball series “Robot Chicken.” The company also hosted Always Open with Dave Koechner, a YouTube series featuring celebrities holding conversations in a Denny’s booth. And, for the particularly spontaneous, Denny’s has a destination in Las Vegas: A chapel offering legal weddingscomplete with two complimentary Grand Slams as a nuptial gift, of course.

So, while the saying “American as apple pie” seems to have set the benchmark for peak American-ness, diners have become symbolic of our culture in their own right. And if the past is any indication, it seems Gene, Sharon, Paul, and the team at Denny’s will be around to serve comforting, classic diner dishes for years to come.