Not many people eat breakfast at dawn, but thousands eat breakfast everyday at Dawn’s.

With 58 Denny’s restaurants in her portfolio, Dawn Lafreeda is the largest sole-ownership Denny’s franchisee in the world. Not bad for a girl who started her foodservice career as a hostess in Fullerton, California at 16.

And while Lafreeda’s isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story, it’s certainly the American dream come true.

“We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up,” 50-year-old Lafreeda explains. “My mom was a single parent raising three kids and I certainly had to work.

“I started out as a hostess and thought I could make a little more money as a waitress so after about six months I started waiting tables.”

By the time she was 23, in addition to her Denny’s duties, Lafreeda had taken on college and a second job at a company that sold accounting software to CPAs and law firms.

“The software company was very small so you had to wear a lot of hats,” Lafreeda says. “I learned a lot about business there.

“That’s one of the challenges about running a business. You may know everything there is about running a restaurant but you don’t know anything about running a business. You have to understand payroll and accounting and things like that. I was able to get at least a little bit of experience in that sort of thing at the software company that I was able to carry forward to my own business.”

It was then that the California native bought her first restaurant.

“I bought it from Denny’s but it wasn’t a Denny’s,” she says. “They had bought out a chain called Hobo Joe’s and there was one in a little mining town they weren’t too interested in.”

So, with loans from family members and all the credit cards she could get her hands on, Lafreeda moved to Globe, Arizona, and went into business.

Even a natural-born risk taker like Lafreeda admits financing a new business with credit cards was a daunting proposition.

“I don’t let fear stop me from doing something, but I was a little nervous. I remember sitting down with my mom and asking, ‘what if I don’t make it?’ She said, ‘So? You start over at 26?’

“That made a lot of sense so I just decided to go for it.”

Lafreeda credits her mother, who was a district manager for Denny’s, with instilling her entrepreneurial drive. “She taught me you don’t get ahead by sleeping in. She was very hard working. With three kids to support by herself, she knew she had to provide for us. She really always made me feel like I could do anything. She’s certainly the person who gave me that sense of empowerment.”

Lafreeda’s first actual Denny’s franchise was in San Angelo, Texas, a far cry from the southern California lifestyle she was used to.

“It was a culture shock when I got to San Angelo. I thought every airport was like LAX.

“I needed to move to a bigger city so I was calling Denny’s headquarters every week, begging them to sell me a restaurant in San Antonio because that was the next biggest city on the map.

“Finally, after months of pleading, I was able to buy a franchise in San Antonio. I moved here in 1986. I was 24.”

That full-speed-ahead attitude has clearly paid off. With restaurants in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, Lafreeda’s Den-Tex Corporation had sales in excess of $60 million in 2010.

And it’s a good thing too, because Lafreeda, who left college after a year, didn’t have a backup plan.

“Denny’s has been good to me. By giving my mother a job they’ve been feeding and clothing me since I was a kid. I never considered any other restaurants. I kind of have the Southwest Airlines mentality: Have one plane and know it really well.

“Now I have a well-oiled machine and team that’s very good at what they do.”

That team numbers more than 1,800, and Lafreeda considers many of these employees her extended family.

“When you work side-by-side with people for years, you become close. They’ve seen the ups and downs. No one does this alone. It takes a team of people and I’ve been very fortunate to work with some exceptional ones. They’ve made a commitment to me and I’ve made a commitment to them.

“A few years back I started making some of my key people partners in some of my restaurants. So far I have five upper leadership people who I’m partners with in several restaurants. It feels really good to be able to be partners with someone who’s helped me get to where I am.”

Lafreeda feels that same sense of commitment to the communities in which she operates her businesses. Den-Tex is a supporter of the Special Olympics, Big Brothers & Big Sisters and Equality Texas.

“I don’t get to be in a restaurant everyday anymore but I still get a thrill when I’m in a restaurant and I see a family come in and have a good time and enjoy a wonderful experience. It makes me really glad I do what I do.”

She says the best part of her job is opening a new location. “My other joy comes from putting a new Denny’s in a neighborhood. I like the development side of the business, so I’m always looking for locations where I can open a new restaurant. Seeing a new site open and hiring 100 people and all the excitement that goes with that, I love that.”

And that’s what she plans to keep doing. Lafreeda, who has been on the Denny’s franchise association board for 10 years, intends to keep growing her business and adding more locations in anticipation of when her seven-year-old twin sons will be ready to take over.

“My boys are going to be working at Denny’s,” she says with a laugh. “They already know they’ll be bussing tables one day.”

By Randy Lankford

Industry News, Leader Insights, Denny's