Denny’s Shares Key Lessons from its Shift to Digital and Off-Premises

A key technology leader from America’s diner shares important tips on reimagining fast casual for the off-premises and digital world.

The pandemic that began in 2020 continues to affect restaurants and their guests in huge ways. When it hit, most restaurants, if they did not already offer digital sales and off-premises service, were somewhere along the journey toward adoption. 

Denny’s has long been an innovator in terms of guest experiences. Its Denny’s on Demand digital ordering platform, re-launched in 2017, gives guests convenient ways to place mobile or online orders for takeout or delivery. By using the app or going online, guests can find their local Denny’s restaurant, conveniently place an order and pay for takeout or delivery (in certain markets). 

When Covid-19 closed dining rooms, Denny’s needed to figure out ways to replace dining room service. The brand decided to augment its already thriving Denny’s on Demand takeout and delivery options by launching curbside pickup, giving the brand another great way to offer its all-American favorites to the off-premises masses.

In late August 2020, about five months into the pandemic, we interviewed Denny’s Director of Architecture and Innovation, Jason Breazeale, for our Table Stakes podcast. During our conversation, Jason shared some very insightful and transferable lessons and tips from the restaurant's sudden pandemic-imposed switch to 100% off-premises. We share parts of that conversation here. For the full conversation, be sure to download the Table Stakes episode.

Q: What has been a game changer?

A: Onsite dining openings and closures have varied (and ping-ponged) widely based on geography and municipality. Throughout the pandemic, we have spent a lot of time reacting and responding to the constant flux as well as changes in capacity restrictions, week to week or even day to day based on state and local guidance. Close team collaboration and constant communication were absolutely essential, and I would say that a key to responding rapidly was having cloud 'as-a-service' infrastructure and technologies in place. They give us the flexibility we need to support our business through the ups and downs.

Q: What was one of the first things you needed to do when dining rooms closed and digital became your only channel?

A: The pressure was on to right-size our infrastructure. Whether you own it or rent it, from one cloud provider or several, it takes time to get to the right scale to handle the demands of your digital platform. And just when you think you have it right, you'll have something that causes a spike. One example for us this spring was the fact that US Mother's Day and Mexican Mother's Day both fell on the same date. We had an explosion in sales. In fact, it was the largest sales day we've ever had, much of it running through our direct digital channel.

Q: What are one or two challenges operators have faced with the consumer move to digital?

A: Digital expands your competitive field and competitive pressure. In our case, suddenly we were not just competing with other Fast Casual Diner concepts but with every other concept in our geographic areas, as well as upmarket and down market, and even against the delivery platforms themselves, to some degree, trying to drive more of our customers and orders to the direct channel.

Q: Digital changes the game in some pretty big ways. What have you noticed?

A: The upsell looks and works differently with digital than it does on-premises. So your digital interface and guest experience flow require a lot of thought and good professional User Experience (UX) design, not the stuff of amateurs.

In digital, good design becomes the new ‘face’ of your brand. And you think about, for example, what else can I add in my mobile app or online ordering experience to drive upsell and cross sell? In the past, that wasn’t as much of a focus in the fast casual space because digital was one sales channel or platform among many. When it becomes the only way to make money, suddenly, it’s everything, and both your UX and your upsell methods have to be top drawer.

Q: What continues to keep you up at night?

A: With more riding on digital, any blip in availability has bigger and more immediate ramifications. So if there was any kind of failure in our digital offerings, it was noticed immediately, whatever the cause or failure point: ISP, cloud providers, partners, etc. With dine-in sales limited by capacity restrictions, or non-existent due to dine-in closures, disruptions like this tend to make or break a restaurant's numbers.

Closing Thoughts

With every investment that Denny’s makes in off-premises and digital guest experiences, it is more prepared for future pandemic-imposed capacity restrictions or closures. As a result, its large franchise community is better positioned to keep serving guests and making sales.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a conversation with Jason Breazeale of Denny’s shared on the Table Stakes podcast by Xenial. You’ll find the Denny’s episode here.

Photo credit: Denny's