Denny’s Franchise – From Waiter to Owner

October 25th, 2010

(Buy A Franchise, Seattle Franchise, Bellevue Franchise)

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Fifth restaurant opens: Business partners Rusty Darin (left) and Joe Lopez are shown recently at their new Denny’s Franchise restaurants in Grand Ledge as workers are trained in the background. The men own five Denny’s Franchises in Michigan.

As far as choosing a college major goes, Joe Lopez’s method probably isn’t what most guidance counselors would suggest.

I basically put on a blindfold and picked up a brochure. It turned out to be for hospitality and restaurant management.”That one bit of whimsy seems to have worked out well for Lopez, because he and his business partner just opened their fifth Denny’s Franchise since 2007. The latest location is at 7800 Grand River Ave. in Grand Ledge, just off Interstate 96 in what used to be a Flying J truck stop. ¬†It opened Oct. 3 with 109 employees. That brings the total number of workers Lopez and his business partner, Rusty Darin, have at their restaurants to about 340. Workers are paid anywhere from $2.65 an hour plus tips for servers to as much as $13 an hour for cooks to $30,000 to $42,000 a year for shift managers.The right moves

The Grand Ledge Denny’s Franchise caps a three-year dream-come-true for Lopez, a man whose first Denny’s job was serving up Grand Slam breakfasts. “Great service by great people,” Lopez said, quoting the company philosophy. “I love what I do.” His journey from waiter to owner – at least as he describes it – is one part loyalty and one part “being in the right place at the right time.” After rising through the ranks and spending several years as a regional manager, Lopez had a chance to meet with the CEO of Denny’s Corp. “I told him I had always wanted to open my own Denny’s Franchise,” Lopez said. “So, he told me, ‘Why don’t you come meet with me tomorrow morning?’ ”

Becoming partners

Lopez brought along the man who gave him his start – Rusty Darin, Lopez’s boss during his server days. Their shared commitment to the company had made them friends. The meeting that morning would make them partners. The CEO told them the company was going to launch a new program called the Franchise Growth Initiative, a push to transfer many of its restaurants to a Franchise model. He asked if they would be interested. “We were the first people through the FGI,” Lopez said. “We jumped on board just in time.” Because they were already working for the company, Denny’s gave them a break to get started by waiving the $40,000 franchise fees and by paving the way for them to be approved for loans from a bank for the initial investments. “We are just modest family people who work hard,” said Darin, 53. “We’ve been given opportunities from Denny’s that we wouldn’t have otherwise, not in this economic climate.” New Franchisees usually have to show a net worth of $1 million to be considered. Three years later, Lopez and Darin own three Denny’s in the Lansing region – in East Lansing, Delta Township and Grand Ledge – and two in the Grand Rapids area.

Service is key

Last year, the East Lansing, Delta and Grand Rapids- area Franchise locations had a combined $5.5 million in sales. They averaged 2 percent to 3 percent higher sales than corporate-owned Denny’s throughout Michigan, Lopez said. He expects the Grand Ledge restaurant to boost annual sales by $1.6 million. Lopez and Darin said their success is all about customer service, and every store is a family operation. Darin’s two sons have worked for him – one as a server and the other as a manager. Lopez’s kids mow the lawns, and his wife often comes in to help clear tables and wash dishes. His retired father has even worked on the weekends as a host. Whether treating local swim teams to breakfast or donating to school fundraisers, Lopez said he wants their Denny’s Franchise restaurants to be known first and foremost as local businesses. “It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of fun,” Lopez said. Denny’s Corp., based in Spartanburg, S.C., has about 1,600 restaurants. It earned $41.6 million in 2009 on $608.1 million in revenue.

photo¬†Family business: Joe Lopez and his daughter, Rachel Lopez, are shown at the new Denny’s restaurant in Grand Ledge. Rachel also will be working and training workers at the restaurant

(Buy A Franchise, Seattle Franchise, Bellevue Franchise)

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