Today’s CMO has many missions—creating clever ad campaigns, promotional tie-ins, strategic partnerships, a vigorous social-media presence and so on. In that respect, Denny’s CMO John Dillon is no different from his peers. But a few months back, Dillon had another mandate, and this one was unique.
“To serve and cook as many pancakes and strips of bacon as possible,” said Dillon, speaking from the family-dining chain’s franchisee convention in Las Vegas.
Denny’s already serves a lot of pancakes and bacon as it is. Its Grand Slam Breakfast, a menu staple since 1977, features two buttermilk pancakes and two strips of bacon (among many other treats), and Denny’s serves upwards of 12.5 million of them every year. But Dillon’s aim was to serve a ton of Grand Slams out of a truck.
Not a food truck, mind you, but a real truck—an 18-wheeler fitted out with a fully functioning restaurant kitchen. Oh, and one other thing: The food would all be free.
These are a few of the features of Denny’s Mobile Relief Diner, a cherry-red semi that made its official debut last week. As the name suggests, the truck’s mission is to help those affected by natural disasters, which means the truck’s odometer has already been racking up the miles. Denny’s dispatched its truck to the Carolinas last week to feed those displaced by Hurricane Florence, having routed it across the country from a tour in California, feeding people affected by the spate of wildfires this summer. Denny’s is posting real-time updates of the truck’s whereabouts on Twitter.
“The idea [for the truck] hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Dillon, who explained that the ever-evolving definition of branding has come to include ways that a company can support communities that supply a ready stream of customers when times are good by being there when times take a turn for the worse.
“More and more brands are going through these types of efforts,” he said, “understanding a brand’s purpose and trying to amplify it.”
Last year, when Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston, Denny’s rented a mobile kitchen and dispatched it to the flooded city. The effort was so well received that the company decided to double down by building its own truck and making on-the-spot breakfasts for those in need (not just displaced residents, but also volunteers and first responders) a permanent part of the company culture.
Denny’s hired CGS Premier, a Wisconsin-based builder of custom vehicles, to create its mobile diner. Dillon declined to reveal the cost. Housed inside a 53-foot trailer (a matching tractor pulls it), the kitchen is a scaled-down version of what you’d find in the back of the house at a Denny’s, complete with a freezer, ovens, a high-capacity coffee brewer and, of course, grills.
Given the level of need in California and the Carolinas, Denny’s had no time for the customary soft opening. In its first two weeks of operation, the mobile diner cranked out 14,000 meals, and the unit is capable of higher volumes than that.
The rolling kitchen was also designed to crank out a wide swath of Denny’s menu, but Dillon said that for now, breakfast is the order of the day. “There’s something special about pancakes and bacon and coffee,” he said, especially for people disoriented by the loss of a home. “There’s something comforting about that meal in particular.”
Of equal comfort to the CMO was the response from his own franchisee community, which the company depends on to staff the unit. Dillon said he’s gotten calls from team members all over the country, some of them volunteering their vacation time to work the truck. And while the company’s primary aim is to do its part, there’s a clear benefit for Denny’s as well. “It unifies the brand internally,” Dillon said. “It’s bringing people together. There’s something very important and prideful about living the brand purpose together.”