For Denny’s, Driving Around America to Feed Veterans Is a Trip Back to Its Founding Purpose

The Heroes Tour is a pandemic-era initiative inspired by an Eisenhower-era restaurateur

Homeless vets who visit the Denny's truck between now and Nov. 22 will get a free meal. Denny's

If you open the menu at any Denny’s and flip to the sandwich section, you’ll see an item called The Super Bird. It’s a hefty Dagwood made with turkey, Swiss cheese, tomato and bacon wedged into grilled sourdough. It comes with fries and, for $10, it’s a perennial crowd-pleaser. In fact, for the past week or so, thousands of Americans have been ordering them. So, what’s the news? Well, many of these customers are nowhere near an actual Denny’s, and the chain picked up the tab.

Last week, the diner chain pulled its Mobile Relief Diner out of its garage in Spartanburg, S.C., and put it on the road for what it calls its “Heroes Tour.” Between Nov. 13 and 22, homeless vets who can show their military ID will get a hot meal, gratis, from Denny’s 53-foot-long red semi, fitted out in 2018 as a colossal rolling kitchen.

Brands putting their charitable efforts on wheels is not a new idea. Tyson Foods owns a refrigerated Meals that Matter truck that can give away 100,000 meals a day in communities affected by natural disasters. Since 2011, Duracell has dispatched its PowerForward trucks to those same communities and given away free batteries. After a natural disaster, Tide’s Loads of Hope truck is another common sight, a mobile laundromat that will do the washing, drying and folding free of charge.

The Mobile Diner has served as many as 14,000 meals in a two-week period, and it’s designed to exceed even that.

Two years ago, Denny’s put its Mobile Relief Diner on the road for much the same purpose, dispatching it to California after the wildfires and to the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence. As recently as September, the truck fed communities struck by Hurricane Laura.

But the 10-day, 800-mile tour now in progress around Arizona, Nevada and California is a departure from the norm. It’s the first time the rolling restaurant has gone on the road to support a cause that isn’t a natural disaster. And while feeding veterans who are down on their luck might seem like a no-brainer from the cause-marketing department, for Denny’s it’s actually a homecoming of sorts.

A 53-foot-long semi contains all of the kitchen’s equipment.Denny’s

“Our brand purpose, which we uncovered several years ago now, is all about loving to feed people—bodies, minds and souls,” Denny’s chief brand officer John Dillon told Adweek. “That purpose, by the way, was direct from our founder, back in 1953.”

Dillon is talking about a man named Harold Butler, who 67 years ago started a coffee shop named Danny’s, which would go on to be named Denny’s. Butler is remembered most for a simple quote. When a reporter asked him how he built a chain with hundreds of locations, he said: “I love to feed people.”

Even by institutional standards, Denny’s Mobile Relief Diner is a high-volume machine.Denny’s

During the company’s 2011 rebranding, when Denny’s shed its family-restaurant image for a return to its original diner positioning, Dillon took that quote to heart. And when it comes to the truck, he speaks of “the emotional space of that purpose. It’s about feeding stomachs and bodies, but it’s also about feeding souls when they need it the most.”

As for veterans, Denny’s has been feeding them for quite a while now, too. Eight years ago, the chain began serving free pancakes to military men and women on Veterans Day. In 2014, it expanded the offer into the Build Your Own Grand Slam breakfast offering. “We’ve given away millions of free Grand Slams over the years,” Dillon said. And while the current Heroes Tour (organized with U.S. Vets and Veterans Village of San Diego, on whose campuses the truck is stopping) was softly timed to Veterans Day, Dillon said that it’s really more about a national crisis than a national holiday.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.