'This is a treat': Denny's offers free Grand Slam breakfasts

ByFrom staff and wire reports
February 3, 2009, 1:09 PM

NEW YORK -- Competition among casual restaurant operators heated up Tuesday, as Denny's denn offered a free Grand Slam breakfast to reacquaint customers with the brand.

The restaurant chain is giving away the free Grand Slams, which include pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links, to any customer visiting its restaurants on Tuesday between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Denny's has promoted the freebie heavily, with a 30-second ad that aired during the third quarter of the Super Bowl on Sunday, another 15-second ad during the post-game show and a full page ad in USA TODAY's Monday editions. The company reported 14 million hits on its website between Sunday night and Monday morning.

With the promotion only underway a few hours, spokeswoman Cori Rice said restaurants in Miami, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles were reporting long lines and other locations said they were very busy but under control.

"From all reports, it's going extremely well," Rice said.

The company anticipates up to 2 million people will take advantage of the deal, with Rice saying each restaurant will be able to churn out about 100 Grand Slams an hour.

Denny's, which has more than 1,500 locations, sells more than 12.5 million Grand Slam breakfasts a year.

With consumers continuing to pull back on their spending during the recession, the breakfast market has become increasingly focused on value meals in an attempt to grab those still willing to spend but looking to get the most bang for their buck.

Starbucks sbux plans to offer "several breakfast pairings" at "attractive" prices, according to comments made by Chief Executive Howard Schultz last week. Others fighting for a piece of the pie include McDonald's mcd, which is offering new lower-priced specialty coffee drinks, and Dunkin' Donuts, which has value-minded deals.

Denny's said it is trying to change customers' perceptions that Denny's is only a place for a sit-down breakfast that will take a lengthy period of time. It can provide breakfasts to go as well as have food prepared within 10 minutes if the customers would like fast service, according to Rice.

How the giveaway played out across the country:

•Fort Collins, Colo.

At the Denny's in Fort Collins, Colo., near the intersection of Interstate 25 and Mulberry Street, workers started giving away free meals at least 30 minutes before the official 6 a.m. start time, if diners asked.

Former Denny's employee Chris Morimitsu, 39, and his family were among the first diners to come in for the free meals. Morimitsu said he, wife Michelle, 31, and son Ryan, 1, were all awake early, but son Aaron, 7, was still sleeping.

"He got excited when I said 'pancakes, bacon and eggs,'" said Morimitsu, of Fort Collins.

By 5:58 a.m., the restaurant was full and a waiting list started. The dining room's capacity is 167 people, according to the posted occupancy permit. Families with young children sat next to college and high school students, and servers raced from table to table offering the free meals, refilling coffee mugs, and pouring juice and water.

Most of Tuesday morning's diners said they don't normally come to Denny's for breakfast but were drawn in by the offer.

"Usually it's a bagel in the morning," said Fort Collins delivery driver Loren Wartman, 21, as he waited for a table with roommate David Mansanarez. "This is a treat, especially the way the times are and all."

Mansanarez, 23, said he often buys a burrito from a vendor who comes to his job at Collins Door and Hardware. "He lets me pay later, interest free," added Mansanarez, also of Fort Collins.

Retired Poudre School District social studies teacher Andy Chismar said he was meeting a friend to discuss business.

"He said, 'I'll take you out for breakfast tomorrow, but the only time I can do it is 6 in the morning,'" Chismar said.

Chismar, 65, said he was looking forward to seeing the spectacle of so many people trying to get a free meal, a meal he also planned to enjoy.

"It's pretty generous," the Fort Collins resident said.

By 6:10 a.m. the restaurant's lobby was packed full with about 30 people, with a handful more waiting outside in the below-freezing weather. Cars, trucks and SUVs circled the parking lot. The sun would not rise for almost another hour.

Store manager Theresa Rasmussen said she had called in 26 workers for the morning, 18 more than normal. She said people the day before had been calling from as far away as Nebraska, and at least one caller had said they planned to bring a vanload of diners over.

"I was surprised by how many phone calls we got," she said before the rush began and country music played quietly over the restaurant's speaker system.

By 6 a.m., the restaurant's phone was ringing regularly, and workers repeated the same answers: yes, they were offering free breakfast, no strings attached. And yes, there was a wait.

•Fort Myers, Fla.

At least a dozen tables were empty at 6 a.m. at the Denny's in North Fort Myers, but not for long:

Forty minutes into the Grand Slam breakfast giveaway, "We've got 101 guests. That's pretty quick," said John Taylor, Denny's regional manager working Tuesday at the restaurant.

The pace quickened further after 7 a.m., when all tables were filled, and a dozen or more groups waited to be seated.

"I'm happy for this free food. There's no money around," said Clayton Willcutts, 19, who works in lathing — when there are jobs.

"The price sounds good," deadpanned Michael Hanlon, as he puffed on a cigarette and sipped from a can of Arizona Iced Tea, while waiting in line for the free Grand Slam breakfast.

Landon Bennett admitted he'd started his day at a Perkins Family Restaurant, for a regularly scheduled group Bible study. "We just did coffee, then we'll meet up here," Bennett said.

Bennett, who's 40, recently moved to nearby Cape Coral, Fla., to start the Anointed Heavy Trucks & Auto Detailing service.

Bennett praised Denny's "investment in love and hope."

Paraphrasing Christian scripture, Bennett added: "You reap what you sow. (Denny's) is going to reap rewards. "

When times get better, Bennett said, people are going to remember Denny's "stepping outside the box. They'll keep coming back to Denny's."