Competition | June 2010 | By Jill Watral

Not-so-Full Service

Denny’s vice president of concept innovation Greg Powell offers tips for other brands making the switch from table service to on-the-go.

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Q: My first store is a full-service restaurant, and I want my second store to be a quick-service version. How do I go about doing that?

Our idea for the Denny’s Fresh Express came about a couple of years ago with a need to innovate the brand and to create a new concept for Denny’s that was built around portability. The Fresh Express is not only breakfast: It’s our whole line of burgers. It’s basically a grill right in front of the guest, so they can go up to a counter much like you do in a quick-serve venue.

That’s really the substance of what we did with Fresh Express, and we always felt like it was a way to jump start the Denny’s brand and really craft it so you can take it into these types of nontraditional venues where you’re constrained by square footage, you’re constrained by space, and you’re serving a captive audience, so you have to have a very focused and very narrow menu.

With any brand making that kind of launch, the biggest challenge in the whole process is that it’s a whole different operating model. We’re used to 4,000-square-foot restaurants with servers and big kitchens, and we’re going to a 250–500-square-foot space with counter service and a different menu. The first key thing you have to tackle is your menu. Minimize that menu so that it’s very focused, yet very representative of your brand.

Then you ask, how can we execute that in a very small space? And that’s the biggest challenge and the biggest thing that a lot of brands probably struggle with. It takes discipline, it takes focus, and you have to carve out a team that can go do that on its own, because if your standard restaurants are geared toward what they do every day, then they probably aren’t necessarily equipped. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they’re just not equipped to think about that. So carve a team out that can really help and can figure out how to do it: How do we turn around a Grand Slam breakfast for somebody that ordered at the counter and get it to them in 2½ or 3 minutes?

The second big challenge is how your brand is perceived. Our brand is perceived as a casual-dining concept. So you have to somehow make sure customers understand that it’s Denny’s, but it’s going to be different. Those are some of the big challenges I think that anybody faces when they try and do this because you’re going from a 747 down to a Cessna airplane. How do you really shrink that down? It all starts with the menu and the platform.

We took regular menu items and put them on the Fresh Express menu, but we also had this issue of portability, so we developed something called the Grand Slamwich, which is the Grand Slam breakfast in a panini format. We took some of the core products and put them on the menu, but we also developed some other kinds of more portable products around the concept. Stay around your core, but also build some products that make sense for what you’re trying to solve for.

The other part we did to show a difference besides the menu and the operating platform was the branding. We utilized a different advertising agency and said, “Here’s Denny’s Fresh Express. Create a brand out of this, and have some fun with it.” So some of the graphics you see in the unit, and the graphics on the packaging, we just said this is a younger audience, and let’s show them that we can have fun with our brand. You have to think about who your audience is, and everything you see in the graphics really speaks to the idea that it’s fast, quick, fun, and hip.

All this takes considerable planning. We started to ideate what this would look like about a year ago. How would the layout be? What are some of the operating parameters? What are some of the procedures? Do we need to rebuild recipes? It’s not a quick thing. We had to cultivate the relationships with these big foodservice operators who control a lot of the space on the campuses. Cal State San Bernardino is operated by Sodexo, and we’ve been talking to Sodexo for about a year and a half. They wanted to see where we would be applicable to some of their venues.

In our case we also had to think about our full-service franchisees. We have franchisees who know that we are up and operating, and we’re talking to them about making Denny’s Fresh Express a standalone quick serve. There is absolutely that opportunity, and now we have the vehicle to do it. Our bread and butter is always going to be Denny’s restaurants, but there are clearly opportunities to leverage Denny’s Fresh Express in some places where customers would love to see us.

You have to devote resources to do it the right way. Your core operators may not be equipped to help you do that. They’re used to thinking one way, so don’t be afraid to look outside and bring in other help, because that’s just natural. Brands shouldn’t be afraid to do it, because there’s a deep love for that brand by the customer, and if you can show them a new way that they can use your brand, they’re probably going to be OK with that.

Overall, it’s important not to have tunnel vision. Think broader. You have to set a goal saying, “We’re going to do it by this date, and go get it done,” because otherwise, you could do a lot of work on paper and never get it going. You don’t know until you get it open live and in front of paying customers whether they’re going to accept it or not. And they may not, but I guarantee you will learn a lot about what you need to do, what you need to change, and what you need to fix. That’s all part of the process.