Are You Buying Denny's Vibe Shift?

Denny's is trying to appeal to a new generation, but are they too out of touch?

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word "Denny's" is the scene from the 1994 classic The Santa Clause. In it, single dad Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is trying his best to win his son's heart amid a divorce and has horrendously screwed up Christmas Eve dinner. They head to Denny's because, as Allen says, "Everyone loves Denny's, it's an American institution!"

Denny's has always leaned into this nostalgia and Americana—it's always been here for you with 24-hour service, and it always will be, even on Christmas Eve—but now Denny's seems to want consumers who were born after The Santa Clause (way, way after) by joining TikTok. Not only that, they joined the ranks of numerous other chains leaning into celebrity menu collaborations, asking 24 TikTok stars to spice up their dishes with the Social Stars Influenced Menu. (Get it? Twenty-four TikTok stars, because 24-hour of service?)

Who eats at Denny’s?

A new ad campaign and menu collaboration has Denny's trying to prove it's not just a place for fathers to bond with their kids, but a place that, as the new slogan states, is "Open for Anything." The newly-released ad features a few families, but focuses more on what appears to be a millennial crowd, folks who they say are "racking up cool points on dates," "dancing like no one's watching," and "night owls."

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"Our Social Stars Influenced Menu shows how we are Open for Anything and links to our decades-long heritage of being open and welcoming of people from all backgrounds and personalizing our meals to meet their culinary preferences," Denny's Chief Brand Officer John Dillon said in a press release. "It also shines a light on the real people who love Denny's and whose lives reflect the beautiful diversity of the guests we welcome to our restaurants each day."

While not entirely revolutionary, it's a departure from who Denny's has historically catered to in promotions. Back in 2010, Nation's Restaurant News reported on a newly inked deal between Denny's and AARP, giving all members a 20% discount at the diner (that partnership is still going strong with a 15% discount). At that same time when social media was first hitting its stride, the diner used the medium to offer Mother's and Father's Day deals to parents. And the chain has long continued to offer a deal for kids under a certain age to eat free.

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Why would Denny’s partner with TikTok?

In past attempts to try to be all things to all people, a specific and increasingly large group has gone ignored: Teens and childless 20-40 somethings. It's trickier to offer a special coupon specifically for that demographic, so it makes sense that Denny's would want to reach this group in a different way. Where do those people spend a huge chunk of their time? I can answer this with extreme confidence as one of them: TikTok.

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There are still plenty of signs that this pairing isn't the most natural collaboration. For one, Denny's newly created TikTok isn't exactly blowing up—it's only been around for two days, but for a major brand, hovering under 5,000 followers isn't great. That's likely in part because the only TikToks on the page so far don't follow any sort of trends, aren't particularly visually appealing, and all are way too similar. Each post is just a hint at one of the 24 influencers tapped to collaborate on Denny's menu.

That menu also shows a bit of a disconnect. The clunkily named "Social Stars Influenced Menu" is neither short, nor snappy, nor hashtag ready. And the descriptions of each star feels like how my mom would describe people—Matt Taylor being labeled as the "skit maker extraordinaire" offers a special bit of cringe.

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So far, none of the revealed TikTokers have posted about their menu item on their personal page, which feels like a real missed opportunity alongside the announcement. We'll be keeping an eye out for those posts that hopefully come soon.

What’s on Denny’s TikTok menu?

All this being said, the food itself so far sounds pretty tasty, and the dishes definitely lend themselves to being camera-ready, which hasn't been a focus of Denny's in the past. Here's what premiered this week according to a press release:

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  • Get That Cookie Dough Pancakes, brought to you by Jenny Solares (@es_jenny_solares) and The EnkyBoys (@EnkyBoys): Buttermilk chocolate-chip pancakes topped with cream cheese icing, served with eggs, hash browns and a choice of bacon or sausage.
  • Jala-Bac Burger, brought to you by Jonathan Chavez (@PaqJonathan69) and Elise Osafo (@ElTheEgg): hand-pressed beef burger with aged white cheddar cheese, bacon, mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickles on a brioche bun that's topped with a blistered jalapeño and served with wavy cut fries.
  • Clearly Very Fruity Pancakes, brought to you by Elliott Norris (@CallMeBelly) and Matt Taylor (@Mattheperson): Clear blueberry-flavored sauce drizzled over buttermilk blueberry pancakes that are topped with fresh strawberries and sweet bananas, served with eggs, hash browns and your choice of bacon or sausage.
  • Only time will tell if these dishes will go like hot cakes (pun intended), and if Denny's will step up its social media game. In the meantime, we can give Denny's a hat tip for attempting to change and getting behind a message of inclusion. At the very least, we know they'll always be open for when we burn our holiday meals to a crisp.

     

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