The Pursuit of Opportunity

In Dawn Lafreeda’s world, a restaurant is a store and a portfolio is a fleet. The talk of stores, décor packages, designated market areas and general franchise language rolls off her tongue naturally, but then, it’s a world she knows well. Lafreeda is president and CEO of Den-Tex Restaurants, owning and operating 82 restaurants. The portfolio includes 81 Denny’s stores across Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and Oklahoma, as well as one non-Denny’s in Globe, Arizona.

“Denny’s bought out a chain, and there was one store in Globe, a tiny little mining town, that they weren’t going to convert into a Denny’s, so they sold it out of the chain,” she explains. She began her career as a hostess at Denny’s at 16, before making her way to waitress. She and a friend who also worked at Denny’s decided to buy it.

But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Lafreeda was 23 at the time, going to college and still waitressing at a Denny’s in Orange County, California. “To buy the restaurant, we took out every penny we could on credit cards,” she explains. It was 1984, long before credit card loans became popular. “We didn’t know if the restaurant was going to be successful. Denny’s sold it because it was in the middle of nowhere. It did no volume.”

Buying a poor-performing restaurant in the middle of nowhere might seem like an odd choice, but not to Lafreeda. “I looked at it as a stepping stone, “ she says. “I thought, I know the restaurant business. I worked in it, my mother worked in it. I was familiar with it. I liked it. I didn’t know it would quite turn into what it has turned into, but I’m forever grateful.”

At the time, however, she had to be sure she could pay back those credit card loans, so she kept her waitressing job in Orange County, working any moment she could. And she commuted to Globe to work at her own restaurant on weekends, a more than six-hour trip one way. But she made it work. And Denny’s noticed. When oil went bust in West Texas, they approached Lafreeda and her partner to buy four ailing stores in Midland, Odessa, San Angelo and Big Spring. They bought the stores, and Lafreeda moved to San Angelo.

“I was so young and naïve,” she recalls. “I thought every airport was like LAX. I’ll just fly home if I get homesick.” Once in San Angelo, she discovered that there was just one flight a day, and the airport was an hour and a half away. “It’s hard to take a girl from Orange County and put her in San Angelo, but it was an opportunity. An opportunity I wasn’t going to get somewhere else.”
Then she pulled out a map. San Antonio was the next biggest city. “I begged Denny’s to sell us a store here,” she says.

She made it eight months in San Angelo, turning around the stores there, and Denny’s offered her an opportunity in the Alamo City. Lafreeda then bought out her business partner, built some additional stores and firmly planted her roots in San Antonio, growing Den-Tex Restaurants from 13 stores then to the 82 she has today, making her the largest single-owner franchisee in the system.

To put that number in perspective, she serves 1.2 million people in her restaurants each month. “I find a lot of joy in that,” she says. “That means more than a million people walk through your doors. Issues occur, but I still love it.

“I love what I do. I love that on any given day, I can change paths. I can say, you know what? We’re going to remodel that restaurant tomorrow and make a difference. I love that we call the shots, owning our own company, and that I’m never stagnant. There’s always a new launch of something, a new idea, a new décor.”

She didn’t start out planning to own 82 restaurants. “I always wanted to own maybe 10. I guess once you surpass that, you set the goal higher. After I bought out my business partner, I thought maybe I’ll develop until about 40. That sounded like a good number to me,” she remembers. “I don’t know what was magical about that number. Then I went on a development craze.”

In the franchise world that Lafreeda knows so well, franchisees are sometimes approached with opportunities to buy existing locations, as long as they in turn agree to develop additional stores. As Lafreeda’s success continued, Denny’s approached her with additional opportunities they felt suited her skills, including turning around troubled stores. She also did 10 stores in one year when Denny’s took over the restaurants inside Pilot/Flying J travel stops. “There were 10 of those in my markets, so I took advantage of every one of them,” she says.

But she doesn’t have a new number in mind. “It’s really what comes from here (motioning to her gut instinct). I learned a long time ago to follow my gut,” she says, explaining that she once went with her head versus her gut instinct and the store ultimately wasn’t successful. “Now I look at it differently. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

And yet she doesn’t think she’d do things differently if given the chance to advise her younger self, commenting, “There are things you learn, but I think it’s all just unfolded the way it was supposed to. Even as a result of my mistakes, other things happen. So I would just say, go for it, girl.”

Lafreeda is open about her past and her family’s challenges when she was growing up — and how that influenced her path. “We were very poor. I always felt that we were struggling,” she explains. “I’m a hard worker. I think growing up with little was a gift. Coming from nothing I think contributes to my drive for success as an adult. Just because right now in your life things don’t seem great, you can still aspire to do great things.”

Her inner drive was clear early on. “I always knew I was going to be self-employed, and I always knew I was going to own my own company,” explains Lafreeda, who told her mother just that when she was 10 or 11. “One day, I’m going to own my own company and make a lot of money. She looked at me and said, ‘Of course you are.’”

Her mother’s guidance has helped shape Lafreeda’s path. When she was preparing to buy her first restaurant, she turned to her mother and heard advice that guides her today: “I said to her, ‘These people are depending on me for a paycheck. What if I fail?’ She looked at me and said, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? You start over at 26?’ And I never looked back. That’s my motto now. ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’

“It’s the best advice she ever gave me. It resonated with me. It was the piece of advice I needed for the journey I was about to take. And the fear went away,” says Lafreeda.

She gives her children, 14-year-old twin sons Cruise and Connor, the same guidance when they struggle with something. “I tell them, ‘We’re all still going to be here tomorrow. Nothing is so bad that it’s going to rock your world. It might temporarily set you back, but what’s the worst thing that can happen? We just start over.”

Lafreeda’s face lights up when she talks about “her boys,” and in spite of her demanding schedule, spending time with them and partner Lupita Corbeil is a priority. The couple have been together for 24 years and work side by side at Den-Tex, where Corbeil manages human resources for the company’s 3,000 employees. Thanks to turnover, in an average year, human resources may touch as many as 8,000 employees. “The labor pool is our biggest challenge,” Lafreeda explains. “It’s hard to get good help.”

The boys are avid basketball players, and much of Lafreeda’s free time is spent at basketball games, after which the family goes to Denny’s, of course. While her kids can have anything on the menu, because of the frequency of her Denny’s visits, she limits herself. “I eat there so much, I have to pace myself. If I go tour a market, I eat at Denny’s a lot. I went to test menu items in Kansas City and ate 12 orders of pancakes in three days,” she recalls.

She notes that her list of menu favorites is long and ever-changing due to frequent menu updates and limited time offerings, like special pancakes. “I have a lot of favorite things, but what I allow myself to have is another story. When we had the peanut butter milkshake, I was addicted to them. So I’d say, ‘Make me a kid’s size,” she laughs. But her children are a different story. “They can have anything on the menu.”

While the footprint of her portfolio covers a wide geographic area, her service on Denny’s franchise board and committees keeps her on the road more than the stores. Lafreeda serves on the Denny’s Franchise Association Board, where she is a director and treasurer, and also on the board’s Special Events Committee. She also serves on the Development Brand Advisory Council and the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee.

But that’s not all: She’s on the committee that’s responsible for the evolution of Denny’s building and remodeling, working on the chain’s next prototype and décor package. She’s also working with a committee to pick and test uniforms. She says, “I do a lot of testing for the Denny’s. New products, equipment, software, vendors, etc. We typically go through a test process before we roll out new initiatives.”

All of that, as well as the nature of the restaurant business, means that Lafreeda’s free time is limited. She jokes, “I collect restaurants—it’s what I do. When you love what you do, it’s like you don’t have a hobby. I like to build restaurants. I like to find deals. It’s work, but I like it.”

However, she does make a point to work out and enjoys going to the theater and eating out—even at non-Denny’s, especially since she doesn’t cook. She also doesn’t drink. “I just don’t like it. I prefer a cookie,” she says.

She also enjoys traveling, especially with her family. “When the kids were born, I said, ‘I’ve got 18 summers. I’m going to make the most of them.’ We take a lot of good family vacations. It’s really important because I do work a lot. I think it binds us—I always feel closer to the kids after a vacation, and the boys love to travel,” she says.

Honest and open, Lafreeda is quick to point out that “what you see is what you get” and that she doesn’t sugarcoat things: “I’ll always tell you the truth. You might not like it, but if you come to me for advice, I’m going to give you the truth.”

That quality earned her a spot on a show on the Food Network, where she advised young restaurant owners how to take their business to the next level or expand. Last year, she appeared on Entrepreneur’s online series, Elevator Pitch, giving advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. The series garnered 20 million views, and a second season is in production. She enjoys participating in the series, though her first love will always be Denny’s.

She just celebrated her 40th anniversary with Denny’s and has no plans of stopping. “It’s been good to me my whole life. When I was 14, my mom started working at Denny’s. When I was 16, I got a job at Denny’s. It’s been in my life my whole life, and it’s given me opportunity I’m not sure I would have had anywhere else.”

She credits part of her success to her decision to stay with the company. “I’m with a great brand that’s been around a long time with a good track record. If I had the name ‘Dawn’ on the sign, it might not do as well,” she notes, refuting the criticism that franchisees pay royalties, or that franchising can be expensive. “If I was doing it myself, and had to create the sign, the menu, the décor package, the architect plan, all of that—I might have 10 restaurants. But because I buy into a franchise, I’m able to do more.”

The size of Lafreeda’s portfolio also earns her the distinction of being the largest female full-service restaurant franchisee in the country, something she’s proud of. “I think that’s a big accomplishment for a girl who bought her first restaurant off of credit cards,” she smiles. “I’m really proud of the choices I’ve made. Most of them have been right. You make mistakes along the way, but when I put my head on the pillow at night, I feel I’ve done my best job for the day, that I’ve done things the way I’m supposed to.”

She sees the size of her portfolio as proof that being a woman has not been a barrier to her success. However, she has had a few hiccups along the way, especially early on, including those days in West Texas. She took all of her corporate paperwork to open an account with a bank in San Angelo and was greeted with a doubting male banker.

“’Young lady, are you sure you’re not the waitress?’ Yes, I own the restaurant. ‘Are you sure you’re not the manager?’ I’m sure I own the restaurant, and I’d like to open a bank account,” she recalls. “He would not take my money. So I found another bank. Every week, the president of the bank would come in and ask, ‘Is there anything we can do to earn your business?’ No. I moved on.”

Lafreeda doesn’t let little things like that stand in her way. When she wanted to buy the office building that Den-Tex calls home in San Antonio, she turned to her local bank. “I had as much money in savings as the building cost at the time. The banker looks at me and says, ‘Young lady, you don’t know real estate. You need to stick to the restaurant business,’” she recalls. The next day, she took all of her money out of the bank, then went to another bank to secure a loan. “You can let it beat you down or find another way. You have to rise above it.”

She’s also been asked if she and her husband own her business, or if it’s a family business. “People don’t think a woman could do this, but I think times are changing and shifting. It’s all about education. We need to not allow it or tolerate it,” she says.

“I’m really very lucky that I get to do something I love. Denny’s has taken care of me my whole life and it’s taken care of my kids,” she explains. “I’m just really blessed that I got an opportunity and was able to make something out of it.

“I got a chance and I took it. I’ve been able to do something really great with a really great brand.”

By Dawn Robinette

Photography by David Teran