It may have Denny's name hanging on its sign, but the menuboards on the wall and the lack of hosts and servers insinuate a slightly different adventure.

Denny’s ventured into the fast-casual market on Nov. 12 with the opening of the first Denny’s Café in Orange, California. The café is the brainchild of Steve Dunn, Denny’s vice president of development.

“Dunn saw the need for a neighborhood Denny’s several years ago,” says Dave Demers, director of development projects and services with Denny’s. He says an analysis revealed 700-800 densely populated locations that were underserved by the Denny’s brand because the restaurant relied on freestanding buildings.

“There is an abundance of real estate opportunities in these markets,” Demers says. For example, retail centers and ground floor office buildings offer plots of 3,000 square feet – not enough for a full-blown restaurant, but certainly large enough to entertain customers seeking a timely dining experience.

So the brand retooled its methods and launched the café: menu boards and counter service replaced servers; a seat-yourself atmosphere replaced hosts; the menu was chopped in half, leaving only the most popular items from breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and a $2, $4, $6, $8 value menu was created for ease of ordering.

“The strategy to reduce the menu was to focus on faster execution,” Demers says.

Despite the abbreviated menu, Demers emphasizes that value and variety are top priorities. “We offer guests many menu items to choose from, including healthier options if desired, and Denny’s Café will continue to offer our top sellers in a fast-casual setting.”

The second Denny’s Café is set to open in Livermore, California, in December. Both the Livermore and Orangelocations will be company-owned, but Demers expects to offer franchising opportunities as early as the first quarter of 2011.

“Denny’s is 90 percent franchised,” he says. “The sole purpose of Denny’s café is to be a franchise growth vehicle for Denny’s. In this new venue, many more opportunities will soon be opened up for our franchise developers to reach these underserved neighborhoods.”

By Sonya Chudgar

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, News, Denny's