YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- During the Super Bowl America was offered a free breakfast today at Denny's, and Ad Age decided to take it up on its offer in four different areas of the country.
Or at least we tried. In Cincinnati, three Denny's near our correspondent Jack Neff's house had been shut down -- one replaced by a Hooter's.
In Newburgh, N.Y., about an hour north of New York, Rich Thomaselli's plan for an early breakfast turned into a late breakfast, which turned into breakfast for lunch, which finally turned into a Big Mac, fries and a Coke.
The Denny's in Newburgh -- there isn't another one in the area for almost 19 miles -- is located on Union Avenue, a busy stretch of road five minutes from the New York State Thruway, 10 minutes from Stewart International Airport and 20 minutes from the United States Military Academy -- and, yes, it seemed like every truck driver, flight attendant and cadet was there for the free Grand Slam.
Denny's staff was quoting patrons a 70-minute wait at 7:50 a.m., a 50-minute wait at 10 a.m., and a 45-minute wait at 12:30 p.m. As a light snow fell, one man pulled up to the restaurant's entrance and asked the dozen or so people huddled outside "How long?" When given a response, he muttered, "I'm not waiting an hour just for scrambled eggs," as he closed his window and slowly pulled away.
'Free is free'
A couple of patrons laughed, but Demetrius Jackson of Newburgh, said, "It's free. I'll wait." Mr. Jackson and three friends pulled into the restaurant's parking lot shortly before 10 a.m. "Free is free, right?"
Free is free, but for at least two potential customers, the trip to this particular Denny's would turn out to be slightly more costly. In the race to a parking spot in overcrowded lot, one man in a green Ford Explorer backed into another man in a Dodge Caravan, leaving both to exchange words -- and insurance cards -- before being able to place an order.
In the warmer climes of Los Angeles, Bradley Johnson found a slightly smaller crowd in the Wilshire Boulevard neighborhood of Koreatown, where the local Denny's is situated in the shadow of the historic Wiltern Theatre. There, about 30 people lined the sidewalk at 7:50 a.m.
"The line's like Magic Mountain," said Rick Fernandez, 46, a graphic designer who lives in the neighborhood. He decided not to stay, figuring he would find a less busy Denny's later closer to his office.
The line ended up moving quickly, with only about a 15- or 20-minute wait. Service was fast inside: Patricia Aguirre, 26, the restaurant's general manager, told Mr. Johnson it only took 10 to 15 minutes for a customer to sit down, order, be served and leave. "Everyone's really happy," she said. "We're fully staffed. We were prepared."
No Grand Slam for tips
Denny's offered the free Grand Slam (for the uninitiated, that's eggs, pancakes, sausage and bacon). Coffee and orange juice cost extra. Ms. Aguirre said many customers opted for just water. The promotion wasn't necessarily a grand slam for waitresses. Maira Benneth, 19, said she was getting tips of "a dollar here and there," but most customers weren't leaving tips on their free breakfast.
It seemed many customers in the L.A. Denny's were already fans of the chain. Jacques St. Marc, 27, a day laborer, said he visits Denny's three or four times a month. "It's good -- good value, nice portions," said Mr. St. Marc.
Kevin Washington, 50, a disabled veteran and a college student, saw the commercial and was happy to get a free breakfast. But he said Denny's ongoing $3.99 price on a Grand Slam, advertised on a banner outside the restaurant, was already a "great value."
Word-of-mouth marketing was working: Mr. Johnson overheard two people talking up the free breakfast on their cellphones. But at least one person hadn't heard of the promotion until this very day. "I saw the line and asked them what was going on and they said a free breakfast," said Mike Smith, 47, who is homeless. "So I decided to join in."
Pleasantly surprised in Pennsylvania
In York, Pa., Beth Snyder Bulik was determined to see whether the offer of free food at Denny's would change perception of the chain among those in her circle who don't normally go to Denny's.
When she got to the only Denny's in York at 8:15 a.m., the line was about 25 people deep. She had asked her friend Mary to come along and they were both relieved that her dreaded vision of a three-hour wait had not materialized. Still, the security guard hired to watch the line commented, "You should have seen it at 6:30."
The man who got in line behind her asked the security guard, "Are they hiring over there? Cause I'm looking." The security guard said no, he didn't think so, and he was only working one or two days a week lately.
That kind of summed up the tone of the morning. Ms. Bulik got the feeling that most of the people in line for a free meal really could use one: lots of senior citizens, several clusters of women each with two or three young children, groups of college kids and, after asking around a bit, plenty of unemployed men and women.
One 20-something man, Richard, said he had just lost his job yesterday and had already signed up for unemployment. (No one she talked to wanted to give their last names. As one retired man said, "I don't want my neighbors to know I stood in line for a free meal.")
The breakfast experience itself was more than pleasant. A smiling hostess greeted our reporter and her friend when they got close to the door, and put their names down on a list. Before seating them, another hostess asked, "Are you here for the free breakfast?" When Ms. Bulik asked her if anyone was here for anything else, she said, "Sure, some. ... At least a few people."
Inside, the restaurant was fairly subdued compared to the line outside and bustling service near the door. It took the women just 20 minutes to get from the end of the line to a booth, and only about five more until their food appeared.
Both Ms. Bulik and Mary had, for no particular reason, assumed that the restaurant wouldn't be clean or was super-tacky inside. But as they looked around at the subtle mint-green and dark-wood walls and glass-blown pendant lights over each table, they decided that wasn't really the case.
So does Denny's free-meal marketing turn into more business? Ms. Bulik said the pleasant experience definitely puts Denny's where it wasn't before -- on her list of family-friendly places to eat.
But what Denny's seemed to be getting the most of was goodwill. Bill, a retiree waiting in line with a group of six other retirees, said, "With the economy down, they really put themselves out there, and that puts them ahead of the rest in my thinking. They say here's a free meal, come see us, and see that we're a pretty nice place with good prices and good food. And come back again."
However, when she asked if he'd come back, he said, "Probably not. It's too far for me to drive." As the security guard said, "I'm not sure if I'd wait 30 or 40 minutes outside for a free breakfast. But it's just like anything. If it's free, people will wait."
Contributing: Jack Neff, Rich Thomaselli