Franchisee works up from being a Denny’s busboy to owning the first Slim Chickens in New Mexico
Dennis Ekstrom was one of the largest Denny’s franchisees but now he has turned his attention mostly on Slim Chickens.
If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.
In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we’re speaking with Dennis Ekstrom, who started out his career as a dishwasher at Denny’s, worked his way up to director of operations at the breakfast chain, and then left to become one of the biggest Denny’s franchisees in the U.S. He now owns many Denny’s and Del Taco stores, as well as the first Slim Chickens in New Mexico, with more to come.
Store count: 18 Denny’s, Del Taco, and Slim Chickens restaurants in New Mexico and Arizona, with several more Slim Chickens on the way in El Paso and Las Vegas
I have over 50 years of history with Denny’s restaurants. I actually started out with them as a busboy and worked my way up through every rank in the Denny system and became a regional director out of Dallas, Texas, running 2- 300 restaurants for them back in 1995. I left that career at the height of glory and ended up getting involved with my first Denny’s franchise ever… We built the largest Denny’s franchise company in the nation: 94 Denny’s over many years together. I sold all of those in 2019 [because I got ill] just before COVID. Since then, I managed to build five new Denny’s locations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then a couple of Texas. At the same time, we had 10 Del Taco restaurants that I decided to purchase myself, and I have a new one opening next week. I have an active pipeline for all 3 brands along with new openings in August for Slim Chickens and Del Taco and a new Denny’s under construction. I’m a busy guy just go-go-go.
The key to successful ownership
There’s nothing like ownership: you learn everything in the world going up through the ranks. That’s how you grow up. In my case, you never forget where you come from. I relate to anybody and everybody and my whole theme and philosophy is you take care of your people and they take care of you. That’s the key to everything I do and exactly where I’m at today is because of many different people who believe in me and themselves and we put it all together for an all-star team. I have a lot of long-term highly tenured people that have been with me for a very long time for all the right reasons.
Moving up the corporate ladder
It does come down to energy, drive, and initiative. I was extremely competitive and just wanted to succeed and excel. As a young boy, I’ve always worked extra hard at everything I’ve done. harder than the person next to me…. All of those things combined really explains what I do as an individual. It gets in your blood and your DNA, and you can’t do anything else other than win.
Adding a third brand
We kept hearing about Slim Chickens and decided to do our homework. I actually flew out and met the entire team of executives and founders of the brand. They courted me, I courted them, and I fell in love with the brand. It’s a first-class company… a very simple, down-home brand. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t have a gigantic menu, like a Denny’s or Del Taco. It’s more focused. The business model was very attractive to me: it’s not 24 hours. It opens at 10:30 am and closes at midnight, so you don’t have to be open around the clock…. I initially signed up for the development rights of the entire state of New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. I opened up my first store and set a sales record for opening day for the brand… I plunged in and I bought the rights to the state of Wyoming and basically all of Las Vegas, so I’m pretty committed at this point. It’s the breakout brand of the decade to me.
The biggest challenge that we face is remaining competitive and keeping that cutting edge. It all comes down to attracting the right talent. If you have the right talent, people follow and they build their followings. You have to be one step better than your competitors. Competition only allows you that the opportunity to fail, and I’ve never failed in my life…. The biggest challenge is to keep that broad perspective and understand today’s market and the changes that everybody’s gone through over the past two or three years in business and exploiting that to the benefit of your brand and your people…. The people that have been with me all these years have raised families and built some beautiful careers for themselves as part of our brands.
Expansion goals moving forward
Denny’s was my first born, Del Taco my second born, and my newborn is Slim Chickens. All of the brands are in growth mode with an active pipeline. My goal is to create a $100 million company all wrapped up between all three brands. That’s a pretty big target. It’s going to take me about four to five years to make that happen, but that’s what I’m striving for.
Slims’ development rights are a little bit broader than what I have with Del Taco and Denny’s….
So that’s why Slims will probably get more focus from me over time, but I’m in love with all three brands. You can’t have a favorite child. I look at all three of my brands as one big family.