I’ve got particularly fond memories of late nights at Denny’s, sitting with friends in high school, just chatting the hours away. I’m sure some of you do too; there’s something about late night diner visits that stick with you. And the pandemic changed that for a lot of diners that were permanently open. One of my neighborhood diners that was formerly 24/7 eliminated overnight service altogether, which changed the way it felt completely. But Denny’s won’t let that happen, and is using new strategies to keep the chain running around the clock.
In a chat with Nation’s Restaurant News, Denny’s CEO Kelli Valade spoke about the ongoing difficulty in keeping the diner chain open all day and all night. She told NRN, “The 24/7 model has been tough, though we keep opening more restaurants every day. Late night was one of the slowest dayparts [times of day] to come back. But there is unique equity in the 24/7 model and we are working on getting them staffed fully for all dayparts.”
There’s not only a sense of nostalgia to 24/7 dining, but utility. On nights when I would get out fairly late from my job as a restaurant cook, almost all restaurants would be closed. But the late-night diner in my neighborhood (pre-pandemic) provided me with a place with an all-day menu. If I wanted anything other than a fast food burger, I could get it, and not feel constrained by my schedule, which was a goddamn relief.
However, Valade recently oversaw was an acquisition of a chain that might seem counterintuitive: a breakfast café. Denny’s acquired Keke’s Breakfast Café, which could compete with Denny’s all-day breakfast. But Keke’s closes after lunch service, unlike Denny’s. And the acquistion expands its audience to a higher income demographic (the menu is decidedly fancier than Denny’s). Because it’s not national yet, Valade believes it has space to grow rapidly, giving it potential for new territory.
Staffing Denny’s locations hasn’t been easy, either, just like many other restaurants. So the company’s looking to take advantage of technology for both front and back of house jobs. QR codes, robot bussers, and new handheld devices for servers are being implemented to ease labor on existing staff.
Back in January of this year, Restaurant Business Online reported that only 50% of Denny’s locations were open around the clock and that it’d take a long time for those numbers to creep back up. But we’ve seen continuous marketing changes, deals like free Grand Slams for rewards members (10,000 are being given away daily until December 16, per a press release sent to The Takeout), and funny promotions like this $5.99 t-shirt that lets you get free breakfast for a year. The momentum is there.
It’s likely going to take a while for the chain to resume 24/7 service at every location, because there’s no telling what difficulties will remain in the future, like the staffing issue. But it looks like the late-night diner memories might not be dead after all, especially at Denny’s.