Denny’s, the diner chain that introduced America to Grand Slams and Moons Over My Hammy, began its life as something else entirely in California in the 1950s.
Danny’s. It was actually called Danny’s.
In 1953, Denny’s founders Harold Butler and Richard Jezak opened up a coffee-and-doughnut shop in Lakewood, California, called Danny’s — Danny’s Donuts, specifically — and worked to open multiple locations over the next several years.
The name “Danny,” meanwhile, held no real significance for either Butler or Jezak. They picked it simply because it was popular, and neither founder had any relatives or acquaintances in mind when they chose it, Butler told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.
But a few years after opening their first location, Jezak left the rapidly expanding business to remain closer to family, and Butler decided to rebrand his shops with an entirely new name.
Nope, not Denny’s. At least not yet.
Starting with his eighth location, Butler began calling his restaurants by a new name: Danny’s Coffee Shop. “Danny’s Donuts,” he said, was no longer indicative of the menu items he began serving in response to a sales slump at the second location, which prompted him to begin offering burgers alongside his jam-filled doughnuts.
After all, a restaurant called “Danny’s Coffee Shop” could offer just about anything — sandwiches, burgers, breakfast, doughnuts. There was only one problem: Los Angeles already had a chain called Coffee Dan’s, and Butler didn’t want his customers to conflate the two, according to the official Denny’s website. (An early investor in Danny’s Donuts who spoke with Los Angeles Magazine in 2012 claimed that Coffee Dan’s actually sent a cease-and-desist letter to Butler and other execs.)
Butler’s solution was to rename the restaurants once again in 1959 — this time to Denny’s Coffee Shops, using another name he chose because it sounded close enough to “Danny.” (Menus from 1960 even featured both names, Jezak’s daughter once showed to L.A. Mag.) By 1961, Butler dropped “Coffee Shops” from the name entirely, settling simply on Denny’s.
“And the rest is history,” claims the official Denny’s site.
We’ll never know if Butler had plans to rename Denny’s for a fourth or fifth time. In 1971, he attempted to buy the then-parent company of Caesars Palace, but was accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of offering a better deal to certain shareholders of the company, The Washington Post once reported. The deal was off, and Denny’s stock prices took a dive. Butler stepped down as chairman and sold his stake in Denny’s soon afterward.
Butler didn’t immediately retire entirely from the restaurant industry altogether. Just as he had done with Denny’s — and Winchell’s Donut House, which Denny’s purchased in 1968 — Butler attempted to grow several restaurant chains over the following decades. In 1979, he purchased and expanded Naugles, a Mexican-inspired fast-food chain that was ultimately absorbed by Del Taco. And in the mid-‘1980s, he attempted to popularize a delicatessen chain called Hershel’s.
Right up until his departure from the restaurant industry, however, he always held a special place in his heart for Denny’s. Or Danny’s. Or whatever he liked to call it.
“If we had bought Caesars, I’d still be with Denny’s,” he told the LA Times in 1985.