The Problem with a No-Pancakes Christmas

When it’s three in the morning and you’re hungry in America, pancakes may be a good option. No, not because there’s something particularly 3 AM-ish about pancakes, but because of all the restaurants that are open at 3 AM, many serve pancakes. Take this list, for example: Perkins and IHOP both allow franchisees to stay open around the clock, and many do; for Denny’s and Waffle House, “always open” is the rule. In Denny’s case, that slogan is even on their signs.

But in the winter of 1998, Denny’s decided to do something they hadn’t done in recent memory — they closed down. Not just one Denny’s, closing due to inclement weather or for renovations or anything like that. All 1,221 of them, nationwide. The occasion: Christmas.

Denny’s, before Christmas Day, 1998, was, as advertised, always open. But that year — at the cost of an estimated $5 million in sales — the corporation decided to shut down for the day, giving its 60,000 or so employees a paid day off. Joe Herrera, then the marketing lead for Denny’s parent company, told the New York Times that “we just feel we spend 364 days a year taking care of other people’s families and for one day a year we want to take care of our own.” Certainly, it was a nice gesture (unless your family tradition was pancakes at Denny’s on Christmas morning, but let’s put that aside for now).

It also created a few jobs — accidentally.

Stores which are always open don’t need to ever lock their doors. And for a majority of Denny’s — approximately 700 of those 1,221 — they never bothered installing locks in the first place. But when the corporation decided to shut down for Christmas that year, someone needed to lock the doors for the first time ever. So, those 700 or so Denny’s needed to hire a locksmith.

Today, almost all Denny’s have a lock on the door as a result. But they don’t get to use them very often, if ever. Denny’s no longer closes for Christmas; in 2016, they issued a press release extolling their limited-time holiday menu available for those “looking for a delicious meal for the entire family” on December 25th.

Bonus fact: Denny’s wasn’t founded by a Denny. The co-founders were two Los Angeles-area businessmen named Harold Butler and Richard Jezak. So who was Denny? No one. Butler and Jezak originally opened “Danny’s Donuts” — yes, Danny — in 1953, using the name “Danny” solely to capitalize on the alliteration with their marquee product. (Here’s what the original sign looked like.) In 1956, Butler (now running the business himself) pivoted to focus on coffee and breakfast options, and renamed the business “Danny’s Coffee Shops.” That caused some confusion because the Los Angeles area also had a “Coffee Dan’s” at the time. Butler changed the “a” to an “e” and Danny’s became Denny’s.

From the Archives: Waffling — what happens when a lot of Waffle Index closes? The government takes notice (if conditions warrant).