Like all the other reporters stopping by a Denny's this morning, I'd come to watch the train wreck. The Super Bowl ad announcing a free Grand Slam breakfast today suggested tremendous potential for chaos. What if they're overrun by bargain-hunting Black Friday swarms? What if they run out of eggs? Won't the local Denny's be given over to the broke, the homeless and the infirm? Oh, right...
All day Monday, Denny's managers across the country played the straight man to nodding, winking reporters with questions like that. For their part, the managers stuck to the company line, all confidence and cool. Free eggs and bacon for everyone? Let's do this!
Yesterday I asked Ron Ronk, manager of the Denny's on Central Expressway at Fitzhugh Avenue, what kind of insanity he was expecting during the promo, and all he wanted to talk about was giving back to the community. "It's especially important in this economy," he said. This man knew his way around a publicity stunt.
Ronk's place is tucked into the dogleg of an exterior-entry La Quinta on the expressway access road. With the hotel and restaurant parking lots full, I pulled into the overflow lot across the street and moseyed over to Denny's a little before 8 a.m.
Once inside, the moseying stopped. Their benches were packed, and the standers waited face-to-face, a few feet apart. I squeezed my way up to the counter, past two antsy kids who circled and chest-bumped me like a pair of miniature Tommy LaSordas, to find Ronk taking names. With his tie tucked into his pink dress shirt, Ronk was ready to do battle today, but kept it together well as he added my name to the waiting list.
Previews of the giveaway had a field day with how bad the crowds would be -- imagine the unruly, unwashed diners -- but as crowded as it was inside, there was no line out the door, and few seemed at risk of burning the place down on orders from above. I counted a "Jackson Hole Ski Club" sweatshirt or S.M.U. hoodie for every wild, toothless grin. In case of trouble, though, the staff was ready with a few crowd-control tricks.
"If for some reason you can't wait, I've got a rain check for you," one manager offered. "And help yourself to these pancake puppies while you wait." A few took him up on his free breakfast coupons, but I dove straight for the puppy plate. After a dip in the communal cup of syrup, the fried dough ball (like a hush puppy, but for pancakes, see) set me flashing back to the state fair. Short of double-dipping, though, there wasn't much to do about the dense, dry cake lump left on my toothpick for the second bite.
My name was at the bottom of a long list, but 15 minutes later a booth by the window opened up, someone called out, "Mr. Ron, I've got a table," and I heard the manager read my name.
"What'll you have?" my waitress asked. Well, the Grand Slam, I guess. "You want toast with that for just 99 cents?" Alright, so here's where they gouge you. But why not? One more thing to cover in butter. I got the wheat toast, just to keep it healthy.
When the food came seven minutes later, I realized something about how Denny's pulled off this stunt. The pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon were all decent enough, but the meal was totally...scalable. These things are already primed for an assembly line, and today the line just ran nonstop. Drowned in syrup, though, everything tasted good.
Best of all, the coffee kept coming. In fact, even on a historic day like this, the refill-happy waitresses were the real highlight of the experience. I got "How's the food, sweetie?" and "More coffee?" at just the right moments. I even got called a "silver-tongued devil" while I chatted and took her picture. (Hours later, I'm still puzzling over what I said that sounded so lecherous.)
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After three cups of coffee, I gathered up my notebook and camera so I could help keep the tables turning over. Pot of coffee in her right hand, my waitress sidled over. "Another cup of coffee?" she asked. I'd better not, I said, nodding to the writhing bunch of would-be diners by the door. "You'd be better off with another one," she pressed, partly blocking my way out. "You have to have your energy to write your article."
So, I took a minute for cup number four and decided not to rush out. The line was going to be there all day, so what's the hurry? I realized only one waitress in the whole place seemed to be scurrying around, but the rest of the staff kept it cool, right on down to Mr. Ron behind the counter, who captained his ship with a steadfastness that proved he was worthy of the name Ron.
I didn't witness any kind of chaos this morning, but as I nudged my way back through the crowd, riding high on caffeine and syrup, I even wondered at why I don't do breakfast at Denny's more often.
Then I brushed past a wild-eyed dude in a "Ford Power Stroke Diesel" hat and loose military surplus coat, twisting a little while he muttered to himself, and I remembered.