The Denny's dilemma

Multiplying means moving beyond the restrictions of the traditional order.

Ron Gladden is the church planting director, North Pacific Union, Vancouver, Washington.

If Denny's* were the only restaurant in town, would more people dine at Denny's, or would fewer people go out to eat?

Let's pretend we're in business the consulting business. We're meeting this month with Denny's corporate board, whose calling is food service. Their passion is to entice as many people as possible to eat their food. One thing is not negotiable: they refuse to com promise the quality of their food. The rest, supposedly, is up for grabs.

Their beginnings were humble; they go way back. Denny opened his first diner, and the people came. He insisted on reasonable prices, 24-hour service, and "down-home" decor. "This will be America's restaurant," Denny boasted. "We will offer something for everyone: steak, salad, sandwiches, children's menu, and breakfast items. When people think eating out, they'll think Denny's."

One restaurant became 10, then a 100. The way he prepared and served food was an obvious "grand slam" success. Denny dreamed even bigger. "Decided efforts should be made to open new diners in the North, the South, the East, the West," his employee bulletin proclaimed. "Place after place is to be visited; restaurant after restaurant is to be raised up."

A plan to multiply

Early corporate leaders seized the challenge and devised a plan to multiply their presence rapidly. They called it "dark county marketing." The plan? Place a Denny's restaurant in every county in America.

It went pretty well. So well, in fact, that today nearly 4,700 Denny's serve hungry Americans from coast to coast. Most counties have been entered. Many cities enjoy several of these establishments. Name recognition is high.

Yet all is not well. Research shows that only one of 1,000 Americans eats in a Denny's on a fairly regular basis. Even in neighborhoods with strong restaurants, most of the people never darken Denny's doors. So the chain has had to retreat from the original vision of serving people of all ages and economic backgrounds with a wide range of menu options. Now it targets senior citizens.

Listen to the Denny's advertising. Two older, hard-of-hearing ladies loudly discuss the latest specials at well, let's see was that Denny's or Lenny's? While corporate sales squeak ahead at barely 2 percent gain a year, the population is expanding so quickly that market share is actually in retreat.

What should they do? How can they reach the vast millions of Americans with their food?

A special "think tank on growth" has been called to address the problem. Loyal but frustrated corporate leaders have flown in from all over the country in hopes of stumbling onto something that will make a difference. Participants take their places around the polished oak table; we are invited to listen as the ideas spill out.

"Back when Denny started this chain, a lot of young people ate here," an old-timer reminisces out loud. "If we could just get more young people to show up, they'd get other youth to come!"

"I have a brainstorm," a regional manager breaks in. "Use giveaways. Give everyone a free meal on his or her birthday. My granddad used to run a little restaurant, and that's what he did. It worked! Once they got hooked on Grandpa's food, they came back again and again."

The only female in the group is known for her progressive ideas. "How about this?" she suggests. "Let's adopt a new slogan. It could be printed on our menus, our napkins, our signs. It could be a little jingle in our ads. Let's call ourselves 'The Caring Restaurant.' Hear me out. People get beat up all day at work. This is the place to come and tank up, where someone cares about them."

"Whoa! You've given me an idea. Would it work to have a 'Visitor's Day' once in a while? I mean, our regular customers are great, but what if all our employees went out and invited their friends to eat at Denny's? They could even knock on doors in the neighborhood and say something like 'Hi! My name is Jane. I work at Denny's, and we're having a special Visitors' Day. I wonder if you'd like to come eat at our place this weekend!' Then, when they come, we could really make them feel welcome. Partway through the meal we could ask all the newcomers to stand and tell us who they are and where they're from!"

Multiplying despite the risks

The VP for marketing bounces a pencil on his palm. "That's all well and good, but I think what we really need is more restaurants. I've crunched the numbers. The demographics show that there is room for a few more of our restaurants in several states. I suggest we scout out some affordable land or find some buildings for sale and enter those dark areas."

"That's risky!" a regional manager from the Midwest warns. "Can you imagine how upset some of our employees will be when they lose some of their 'regulars' to new restaurants?"

The old-timer comes to life. "I'm against it too. Sure, our profits are flat, but we ought to work on filling the ones we have before we go to the expense of opening new ones. Now, if you're talking Hispanic neighborhoods or other ethnic areas, I can live with that, but not anywhere else."

"Amen!" chimes in an executive from the division office. "If people really want to eat out, they know where we are."

The CEO clears his throat. He unfolds his arms and plants his elbows on the table. "OK," he speaks deliberately. "I can live with the birthday idea, and maybe the right slogan will help. Regarding your suggestion, Tom, of opening new restaurants, I've heard the objections, but I think you're right. We need to dust off the maps, find some unentered areas, and go for it.

"But to be honest, I'm still worried. Really worried." The crease in his forehead is convincing. "Living in the shadow of our existing restaurants are thousands of people who apparently won't come no matter what we do. Tweaking what we're already doing and opening a few places similar to the old ones will help a little, but only incrementally. We need a breakthrough. Something has to give. Something consistent with our mission, yet radical enough to shake things up!"

Pencil erasers are chewed. Corners are stared into. Papers are rearranged. At this point the CEO nods toward us, and we're on. ... Any suggestions? Can we help?

Reapplying the original vision

First, let's remind him of the original vision. That vision was not to open a Denny's in every county or even in every neighborhood. "Dark county marketing" was only an initial step toward making the food available to more people. Even if there were a Denny's on every block, thousands would remain unreached. The original vision was "to entice as many Americans as possible to eat our food."

"We think the answer is fairly obvious: There is not just one way to serve food. There is not a 'right' way of operating a restaurant to the exclusion of other ways. As long as you don't compromise the quality of the food, the rest, remember, is up for grabs."

"Pretend, sir, that there are no other restaurants in America. Just yours. Just Denny's. You've earned a lot of customers. By and large, they're happy with what you do. That's great. So keep all Denny's restaurants open. Make them the best they can be. Run new specials. Give things away. Try the new slogan.

"Next, plant a few new ones wherever the territory permits.

"Finally---and here's the break through---open new restaurants where the food is deliberately served differently.

"For example: Start a restaurant where baby boomers feel comfortable and young couples can go for their first date. A good name for it would be the Olive Garden. Decorate with patio lighting and murals to give the sense that you're outdoors in old Italy. Make pasta right out front where customers can salivate and anticipate. Create the illusion of getting something for nothing with all the salad and breadsticks you can eat. Price it a bit higher than Denny's so it seems 'classy.'

"Then create a restaurant targeted at kids. Name it Taco Bell. Kids aren't good at waiting, so serve the food fast. Use bright colors and hard seats. Hang crooked signs that shout 'Four-Alarm Tacos!' 'Extreme Meals!' 'Summer's short---Stay up late!' Sell small, inexpensive portions so kids can eat all they want.

"Next, Mr. Chairman, ask this. If you offered Italian food say eggplant parmigiana at Denny's, prepared exactly as you would at the Olive Garden, would people come to Denny's to get it? Most would not. It's not just the food; it's the way it's presented. It's the atmosphere. It's the wild-colored neckties of the waiters and waitresses. It's the hanging plants and the Old World flair.

"What about seven-layer burritos or Mexican pizza? Would the kids beg Dad to take them to Denny's if you served them there? Don't you wish! It's not just the food; it's the way it's presented.

"So be proud of the Denny's you have. Dream bigger than just improving Denny's and starting some new ones. Dream of reaching tens of thousands of new customers everywhere with high quality food served in a host of creative ways. Dream of planting Casa Lupitas, Subways, Red Robins, China Gardens, Friendly's, even a Macheezmo Mouse or two.

"Roll out the maps again. Plot the restaurants you already own, then go beyond thinking merely in territorial terms. Lay out new maps. Target age groups, mind-sets, interests, preferences. Be different on purpose. Notice now that every county is a 'dark' county. Realize that hundreds, even thousands, of restaurants are begging to be planted. If you plant them, people will come!"

Speaking of grand slams, we consultants have just hit one. The CEO is ecstatic; the think tank is a smashing success!

From restaurants to churches

One hundred years ago Ellen White urged church planting upon a young, aggressive church. Her vision was huge. She insisted that far too many people still lived beyond the reach of Adventist influence. "Becided efforts should be made to open new fields in the north, the south, the east, the west" (Evangelism, p. 19). "Place after place is to be visited; church after church is to be raised up" (Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 20).

The dream proved contagious. Our leaders seized the day and launched a serious initiative to bring the light of truth to every county in America. We called it "dark county evangelism."

From that origin Adventist church planting came to mean: spread out the maps, highlight the county lines, plot the Adventist churches, list the unentered counties, prioritize by population, then do whatever it takes to raise up a church in that place. Our paradigm for church planting was territorial.

How did it go? Not bad, actually. The number of churches in North America surged from 179 in 1870 to nearly 4,700 today. Relatively few dark counties remain, and those are quite sparsely populated. (One example is the Oregon Conference, which has 131 churches and companies within the 31 counties of its territory.)

Is the mission of planting churches accomplished? Would Ellen White pat us on the back for a job well done? Can we fold up the maps and tuck them away? Is it appropriate that the early momentum of church planting has nearly ground to a halt?

The answer is determined by the vision. What is God's vision? What was Ellen White's vision? A church in every county? Not at all! For the church of her day, dark county evangelism was a bold response to an urgent need, a critical step in the right direction. Dark county evangelism was the church's initial strategy for placing the everlasting gospel before the vast numbers of people who would otherwise never hear it.

Yet the dream was not territorial. The mere establishment of churches in previously unentered counties was never an end in itself. A larger vision burned in the hearts of our leaders and still does today. The vision is to make Jesus and His truth attractive to the millions of North Americans who are headed for a Christless eternity. Many of these people live in the very shadow of our existing churches.

Church planting works

Evidence abounds that church planting works. Church planting kindles the fire of mission. It reclaims the inactive. It develops new leaders. It wins the lost more effectively and at significantly less expense per convert. Why, then, has church planting ended up on the back burner of evangelistic priorities? Two reasons.

1. Even today, when we as Adventists think church planting, we think territory. When someone suggests a new church, our mind's eye scans the map. "Let's see," we inquire, "we already have a church in that area. Has the population profile changed significantly enough to warrant another church so close to the first one?"

2. When we do plant churches, they tend to be like the churches we already have. Ministry is done with more energy, but---just like Denny's---our approach and methods are the same. It is natural for parents to have children like themselves. But the question begs to be asked: If the parent churches struggle to impact their communities, why plant churches that are similar to them in approach and personality?

We can do better, much better. We can reach thousands more people hungry for Christ by planting varieties of churches with "atmospheres" and "food preparations" or presentations especially designed for specific groups within the culture. That is, we can plant churches that are deliberately different not in theology, character, or essential standards, but in approach and personality from our traditional churches. Without compromising the quality of food, we can plant a variety of churches in which the food is served to attract youth, the unchurched, singles, Christians of other faiths, and young parents to the Bread of Life.

The first wave of church planting was territorial. It lasted 130 years. It brought us to the strength we enjoy today. North America is ready now for a new wave, the wave of targeting. A wave that holds our message high while arresting the interest of lost people everywhere. As we who love Christ resolve to ride this wave together, we will unleash a virtual torrent of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm for the mission and message of Jesus Christ.

"The children of this world," Jesus lamented, "are... wiser than the children of light" (see Luke 16:8). Let us be wiser and more daring than before, as we seize the challenge of growing the church for Christ. We solved the Denny's dilemma. Under the Holy Spirit, let's solve ours.

* Denny's is a well known restaurant chain in the United States.

All "facts" regarding Denny's are hypothetical and are used for illustrative purposes.

Choose any group of people we are not currently reaching and insert their name in the place of Denny's.


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Ron Gladden is the church planting director, North Pacific Union, Vancouver, Washington.

September 1996

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