"Sometimes interesting things happen in a bad economy," says Dawn Lafreeda, CEO and president of Den-Tex Central Inc. in San Antonio. While the economy continued to hammer the restaurant industry, Lafreeda opened 10 Denny's restaurants in 2010 and 14 in 2011. That brings her total to a whopping 70 in six states (Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas, and Oklahoma).
"That's a lot of growth," admits Lafreeda, who began her Denny's career as a 16-year-old in Orange County, Calif., and bought her first restaurant when she was 23. "But we like to do whatever makes sense, and this made sense for us. In 2012, we're going to focus on fine-tuning our operations, getting acclimated to all our new acquisitions. We're not going to be as aggressive as we have the last couple of years." She pauses and laughs. "Every year, I say we're not going to do as many, and I always make a liar of myself."
Lafreeda's ambition was born of a tough childhood, she says. "When I was a kid, I told myself that I was going to be self-employed when I grew up and have a better life and the things I'd never had." When she was 13, her hard-working mom became a manager and then a district manager for Denny's. When Lafreeda was 16, she needed a job to get a car, so she got a job as a hostess at Denny's.
She continued to work nonstop at Denny's, and took on a second job when a company selling accounting software for CPAs and lawyers recruited her. "At that company, I learned a lot about business, payroll, accounting, and computers. That job gave me the skills I needed to run my own company," says Lafreeda.
When she was 23, she and a friend bought a Hobo Joe's and Colony Kitchen restaurant (part of a chain Denny's had taken over) in the small mining town of Globe, Ariz., about 90 miles east of Phoenix. They did well there, and 18 months later, when oil went bust in West Texas, Denny's offered to sell them "four dogs in that area."
Lafreeda and her partner went for it, but the California girl experienced culture shock in rural West Texas. She called Denny's corporate every week asking them to also sell her a unit in San Antonio, the nearest big city. "I think they finally did just to get me to stop calling," she says. "I've never been afraid to ask for what I want." Thirteen stores later, she bought out her partner and was on her way to the 70 Denny's she has today.
Looking back, Lafreeda recognizes the people who mentored and helped her along the way: people like Jim Orcutt, who taught her "how to borrow money," and her long-time CPA Robert Duskin and attorney Mike Baucom. She also credits her "magnificent and talented" team with much of her success. "While I may have had the dream and the vision, they are the ones who go the distance and make it happen every single day," she says.
Despite all the talk about women in business bumping up the proverbial glass ceiling, Lafreeda has nothing but praise for Denny's corporate. "I've never felt discriminated against from the Denny's side. They've given me many opportunities. They're an iconic brand with a great product, and that's why I feel so much loyalty to them," she says. "Since I was 13, Denny's has been in my life. They've treated me well and put a roof over my head for most of my life," says Lafreeda, an active participant in brand and restaurant industry activities and committees.
Name: Dawn Lafreeda
Title: President, CEO
Company: Den-Tex Central, Inc.
No. of units: 70 Denny's restaurants
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