In a career spanning more than 25 years, April Kelly-Drummond has watched Denny’s implement major changes in the areas of diversity and equity. More accurately, she has been a driving force behind the bevy of initiatives that has transformed the Spartanburg, South Carolina–based company.
During her tenure, Denny’s has gone from a brand on the defensive amid discrimination charges to an industry leader in diversity and inclusion. Through that work, the company has built one of the industry’s most diverse workforces, from on-the-ground team members to the board of directors.
Now, in her current role as head of diversity, equity, inclusion, and multicultural engagement, Kelly-Drummond reflects on Denny’s ongoing evolution and how moving the needle is about more than checking boxes.
How has your career at Denny’s evolved over the past 25 years?
I’ve been very fortunate to have such a rewarding career, starting as an assistant and working my way up to leader of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was a part of the first department of diversity affairs in the country for Denny’s in 1994. So my entire career has been dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Of course, the words have evolved over the years because people weren’t even saying “diversity, equity, and inclusion” back then. So it tells you a lot of how our world has changed for the better.
I’m a preacher’s kid, but I had no idea that after all the years doing things in the community with my dad and my mom, I would grow up to work in a company to do the same thing: to be able to have a stance against all forms of racism, discrimination,and intolerance but also giving back to the community.
In the mid-90s, Denny’s faced two discrimination-based lawsuits. How did those events change the brand’s trajectory?
That occurred at the same time as the Rodney King beating in California, and the lawsuits were definitely a shameful part of our history. Our leadership took ownership of it and used it as an opportunity to learn, hold ourselves accountable, and make changes, like working closely with grassroot leaders.
I remember our first initiative; our meeting was with the late Coretta Scott King. Talk about this historical moment, just to be able to talk to her and work alongside Julian Bond, who was the board chair of the NAACP and also the president of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.
I could not even imagine how much the company would go on to reshape our business practices and our culture. We’ve made tremendous strides in our diverse workforce, as well as in our restaurants and on our board.
Right now, 68 percent of our team members are people of color, we have about 49 percent of our restaurants that are minority-owned, and we have about 5 percent of them that are LGBTQ-owned. About 50 percent of our board members are people of color, and 30 percent of them are women. When I first started, there were zero minorities as franchisees, none on the board, and none in the executive suite.
What are some of the more recent initiatives at Denny’s?
Our mission as far as Denny’s diversity, equality, and inclusion isn’t something that we’re trying to check the box. You can’t do that in any organization. It’s always a journey and a learning curve. We’ve had a zero-tolerance policy and to be able to do that, we have to reinforce it with unconscious-bias training, sensitivity training, sexual harassment training—all the diversity and inclusion traning that’s needed at every company level and for franchisees, too.
We’ve also established programs in the community, like Hungry for Education. Through it, we’ve awarded about $1.5 million in scholarships to Black, Hispanic, and Asian students from the U.S. and Puerto Rico. What’s unique about this program is that we partnered with No Kid Hungry. In their essays, Hungry for Education students share ideas for combating childhood hunger. We select a winner and work to implement their idea.
Our Supplier Diversity program started in 1993 and we’ve one of the leading companies in that space. We spent about $2 billion in the last 10 years, which is at least 10 percent of our contracts, toward purchases from diverse and disadvantaged businesses.
In terms of diversity and inclusion, what do you see as the next big barriers for the restaurant industry to overcome?
To make a change, it has to start at the top. One of the very first steps in breaking down those barriers is the buy-in from leadership. The C-suite and the board have the influence and resources to improve the workforce. We have room for improvement, just like every company; if someone says, “We’ve got it all figured out; we’re fine,” I would tell them to do a deeper investigation because there’s always room for improvement.
At Denny’s we’re also very lucky to have a leadership team that actually sees the diversity at the highest level. They embrace it, and they put action behind it. Our diversity and inclusion council represents different leaders across the company, and the business resources group represents the employees, not only in the support center, but also in the field—they’re instrumental with recruitment and retention.
What’s great about the restaurant industry is that we cater to every person in the country. So we have an opportunity to demonstrate that our workforce can easily reflect the many communities in the U.S., but we also share the experience with our customers.