Denny's: The Past and the Future

With multiple volleys back and forth recently between Denny’s Corporate and the dissident shareholder group, the Committee to Improve Denny’s; the Denny’s Franchisee Association weighed in last week.

They refuted the dissident’s point that franchisees input has been ignored and that they welcomed recent brand and marketing changes.

As this battle builds towards the May 19th shareholders meeting, it’s valuable to understand where Denny’s has been, in order to forecast where it might go.

Denny’s lost a tremendous amount of momentum in the late 1980s and 1990s. It went through conglomerate and restaurant M&A hell with TW Services (successor to TWA Airlines), Coniston,  Flagstar, then Advantica entities, and finally publicly traded as DENN in 2003 again, all with heavy debt, multiple other troubled restaurant brands entering and leaving the portfolio, one securities class action loss, two takeover battles, one Chapter –11 filing, one botched corporate relocation to South Carolina from its core CA market, years of shaky marketing (all of can eat in 1993), and a epidemic of racial discrimination problems in the 1990s.

At decade end in 1999 (December 29 1999), proforma EBITDA (gross of one time charges) of Denny’s was $160M in 1999, but improved to $172M in 2000, $136M in 2001, and $140M in 2002. There were 1784 Denny’s units in 1999.

Ten years later, (Dec 30 2009 10K), it had 1551 Denny’s units, and EBITDA of $106M.

What to do going forward? IHOP didn’t lose the same decade that Denny’s did. It’s done low prices before: remember the $1.99 Grand Slam, and even free associated with the 2009 and 2010 Superbowl spots? Refranchising is not a panacea, there are only 220 company units left, and it’s debatable if franchisees can grow faster.

 It’s unfortunate that refranchising (Denny's FGI) seems Denny’s main strategic alternative presently. What makes us think the franchisees can do any better?

In our opinion, the affordability issue needs to be addressed smartly (a multi tiered value menu was implemented in March) as does the store age, size and location mix of units. CEO Marchioli noted that a large segment of DENN’s customer base were lower income, under $35K. That can only be solved via a selective real estate strategy over time. Also, we recall DENN was testing smaller size units, and wonder where that test wound up.

50% plus of Denny’s sales comes from 2a to 12 noon, exactly when other most other restaurants are dark or gearing up. Late night party folks, overnight shift workers and daytime customers, and the factors that affect them are very important. When will employment pickup?

It seems to us that DENN has more fundamental restructuring work to do, and will take additional years to do so. While we are always concerned about high cost PE debt, perhaps the ultra high pressure Wall Street environment isn’t the place e to be for this transition. 

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Denny's Association

I reviewed their letter to the franchisor, and it seemed that they were taking no sides in the upcoming proxy battle.

They don't seem to want to be seen supporting fully either party.