Steve Braunias: The man who ate Lincoln Rd goes to Denny's

Steve Braunias is on a mission to eat at each of the 55 food joints on Lincoln Rd in West Auckland. • Episode 41 (and food joint 54): Denny’s
Denny’s frequent customer programme has over 8000 VIP customers. How come so many people keep coming back? Photo / Michael Craig
Denny’s frequent customer programme has over 8000 VIP customers. How come so many people keep coming back? Photo / Michael Craig

The man who ate Lincoln Rd has this to say: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" The great line from The Godfather, so often quoted by Steve van Zandt's character Silvio in The Sopranos, became my life this week when I prepared to bring my year-long series to a close by eating at McDonald's, the 54th and final destination along Lincoln Rd - but the jungle drums began beating in the weekend that a new, 55th food joint was about to open. It was true. On Tuesday, I took my seat on the first day of business of the latest addition to Lincoln Rd, Denny's.

Denny's! It was one of the missing franchise pieces on Lincoln Rd. No Wendy's, no Mrs Higgins, no Lone Star, no Domino's, no Hulucat (there's two bubble tea stores in the city, one on Dominion Rd) - what are they waiting for? There were six Denny's nationwide, now seven.

The Lincoln Rd store was packed on Tuesday. Everyone was there to be part of history, to be in first.

Word had spread; there was an excitement in the room, among the couples, the elderly, the four Jehovah's Witnesses - it's hungry work, selling God.

The restaurant takes up a lot of space but for some reason an illustrated history of Denny's, told in about 20 picture frames, was hung up on the walls in the toilet. I felt like some sort of pervert standing around with my notebook: "1987. First store opens in Manukau...1991. $1.99 budget breakfast introduced...." It wasn't the most exciting history lesson in the world but it did include the startling information that the Denny's frequent customer programme has over 8000 VIP customers. How come so many people keep coming back?

The menu isn't cheap. I ordered a $26 sirloin, less than the $37.50 Scotch fillet or $31 T-bone. Sides include steamed carrots for $4, and you can build your own burger for $15. The whole place was no-nonsense, friendly, kind of down-home - it felt like a truck stop. In fact a lot of truck drivers stop in at Denny's in Manukau, according to store manager Flo Adams; she said they stay at the nearby Ryalind Motel.

Flo has worked at Denny's for 18 years. She knows the business inside out, and had come to the Lincoln Rd store to lend her expertise. Other staff were quite plainly making their debut in hospitality and the gracious Flo was always on hand to shown them the ropes.

The steak came on a hot plate. The chips were dry, and the salad included a lettuce which had given up on life, and a slice of cucumber which looked like it had been pulled out of the ground in, say, 1987. But I didn't care too much. I was there for the steak, and it was excellent.

I got to talking with Denny's director of operations, Peter Fernandez, 57, who wore an expensive watch and a colourful bracelet. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur - his father ran a cocoa plantation. He was quite a big fellow with a confident moustache and he reminded me of Barry White, although he spoke in a low whisper.

He was very open with his figures: Denny's has an annual turn-over of $25 million, its busiest store is in Manukau with 60,000 customers every month (Christchurch is in second place, chased hard by New Lynn), the most expensive lease is Hobson St in downtown Auckland, which costs $16,000 a month.

And then he told a remarkable story.

I said, "I'm confused about something - it was my understanding this place was going to be called Dez's. I saw a Dez's sign a few weeks ago, and I talked to contractors who confirmed that's what it was going to be called. What happened?"

He sighed deeply, and explained that it was going to be his own restaurant, named after himself - he wanted a clean break from Denny's, he had a vision. "I wanted to take it to the next level," he said. He pictured a café with an innovative menu and live music. "It was," he said sadly, "my dream."

But his two business partners talked him out of it. They wanted another, seventh Denny's. He acquiesced. I said: "You don't owe those guys nothing! Dez's was your dream!"

He sighed again, and opened his hands, as if to say: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

- NZ Herald

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