"Never be afraid to ask for help or for what you want. You might just get surprised and you might just get it all … I did."Dawn Lafreeda
Dawn Lafreeda successfully opened her own restaurant at the age of 23 and went on to become one of the top franchisees in U.S. history. The entrepreneur now owns 70 of Denny's restaurants in six states (Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Arkansas, and Oklahoma).
Windy City Times: A humble beginning often begets a daring passion for the unknown and a desire for success. How would you say you stood apart from other classmates your age when dreaming of your future place in the world?
Dawn Lafreeda: I was definitely far less fortunate than my other classmates, so I strived from a very young age to be successful and to make a better life for myself. I was forced to grow up quickly [and] was very mature for my age … incredibly driven and always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I started working at age 10 and was always looking for ways to make money so I could get out of my situation. I spent my entire childhood visualizing a better life and dreaming big.
WCT: When you were 16 years old you took a job at Denny's as a hostess and, then, at 23, you bought your own restaurant (Hobo Joe's and Colony Kitchenan acquisition of the Denny's brand). How did you know this was the right move for your burgeoning career at such an early age?
DL: I knew from a very young age [that] I would be self-employed. As a young girl, I recall sitting with my mother and [saying] to her, "One day I am going to own my own company and make a lot of money." She said to me, "Of course you are."
I always felt empowered and kept that dream. When the opportunity arose, I was a little scared and worried about failure, but my mom gave me the magic words that have forever changed my life: "What is the worst thing that can happen? You start over at 26?" That made all the sense in the world to me so I took the risk and I never looked back. I also never feared taking risks of any kind again, whether it be professionally or personally. To this day, whenever I am faced with a challenge I still ask myself, "What is the worst thing that can happen?"
WCT: Twenty-five years later, you now own 70 Denny's restaurantsmaking you possibly the top female franchisee in history. How do you keep your head on straight and continue improving your brand when you must have so much responsibility to juggle? How does one manage it all?
DL: I don't know that I am the top female franchisee in history, but I do know it is a very small club. When you work in a 24-hour/365-day-a-year business, you have to keep your head on straight, as there is never down time. Something is always happening and the ramifications are too great should you let something slide. The type of business I am in requires a huge commitment and a lot of responsibility. It is a lot to juggle, but I am blessed with great organizational skills, a brand that has wonderful systems in place and, most importantly, an amazing team of people that help me do it all. They let me have the vision andday in and day out, no matter what the task or challenge isthey always deliver and make it happen.
WCT: Financially speaking, was there a lot of convincing done on your part to attract initial investors?
DL: I am fortunate that I was able to build my company without any investor partners so I never had to go down that path. I did have to put together financial packages so that I could borrow money to build new restaurants. Early on that was a challenge, but as my company grew, it became easier. I bought my very first restaurant off credit cards, I re-invested everything I made and was able to turn it into a 70-unit restaurant operation with more than 2,500 employees.
WCT: Did you encounter any difficulties as you were climbing the ladder into that proverbial glass ceiling female entrepreneurs speak of so often?
DL: I did early on. I looked very young when I started out so no one took me seriously. They usually thought I was a waitress and never believed I actually owned the restaurants. I had trouble opening bank accounts, borrowing money, buying real estate, and so on. I was fortunate that Denny's corporate believed in me. They continued to offer me opportunities, they supported my growth and development and they still do today.
WCT: As a female entrepreneur myself, I often find it a bit tricky to balance the art of work and home life. How have you made this substantial collaboration work and, in that vein, has either aspect of your life taken a back seat at any given time?
DL: So many times that I have lost count. It is definitely a juggling act and I am certain that, at various times, either my family or my work suffers. I work very hard, but once I had children, I made the decision that I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. I wanted them to experience all the things I never got to experience and I wanted to be a part of it and share it with them. Being in six states and sitting on the board [of Denny's] often has me on the road so when I vacation with my family, I do my best to make it all about them.
On the other hand, when you have a tornado, a fire, a key player quitsyou name ityour family takes a back seat. I must say, I have the best partner in the world. We have been together 18 years and she understands the business. When the family does have to take a back seat, she picks up the slack at home and completely supports me. It is a true partnership and she gives me the freedom I need to juggle the things needing the most attention at the time.
WCT: What has been your biggest hurdle professionally in the past five years?
DL: The financial crisis in 2008 was tough. There were several restaurants I wanted to buy and financing became almost extinct. It was very difficult to get money and if you did get it, the hoops you had to jump through were enormous. What once took a week to get approved was taking months and the cost of the money and loan terms were not favorable. For someone like me who likes to expand and develop, it felt like death. I am pleased to say this is no longer the case.
WCT: What has been your biggest hurdle personally in the past five years?
DL: Balancing my family life with work. My partner and I have eight-year-old twin sons and I never feel I have enough time with them.
WCT: What is your involvement on a day-to-day basis within your franchise? Do you take more of a hands-on approach or run from afar?
DL: I am very involved every day in my business and I try to touch all parts of it. I don't think I am the type of person who can run [the business] from afar. I need to know what is going on in all departments. I don't need to know every detail, but I definitely have to be in the loop and informed.
WCT: Denny's is open to customers 24 hours/day, 365 days/year. Do you struggle with working around the clock to keep up with company and employee needs, or are you able to turn off work mode when necessary?
DL: My 70 restaurants serve over 1 million guests per month so I am always on call. I have done this so many years now that I have learned how to turn it off. It doesn't mean I don't check my email or that I am unavailable; it just means that I know how to balance it so that I can sleep at night and have a quality of life. My VP of operations and I have worked together so long now that she knows when to give me the middle of the night call or if it is a situation that can wait until morning.
WCT: Your charitable contributions and investments in the community are very flattering in light of the current economic stress the U.S. has encountered. Personally, which organizations are closest to your heart?
DL: I am particularly passionate about the Family Equality Council. I learned about the organization while on an R Family Vacations and instantly knew I wanted to be involved. Family Equality Council works at the federal, state and local levels to create a world where all loving families are recognized, respected and protected.
I am also very involved with Equality Texas, Special Olympics and Big Brothers, Big Sisters. My partner is equally (if not more) passionate about giving. Years ago, she noticed I was giving little bits to so many groups that I was probably not being effective. Since she came from a non-profit background, she was able to help me and together we now pick the organizations that are nearest to both of our hearts. We have a formal method for giving and now, hopefully, we are making a difference.
WCT: Have you discovered that the Denny's brand philosophy is in line with your own personal convictions? As a franchisee, how much control do you have over this aspect?
DL: Yes definitely. If we weren't in line it would be hard to continue to grow and develop restaurants for them. I believe in their philosophy, their strategy and all that this iconic brand stands for. After all, it was because of Denny's that I was given a chance and an opportunity and, as a result, I am their largest sole owned franchisee. I am truly living the American Dream. Yes, I am in line!
As franchisees, we buy into a concept so we don't have a lot of control over their philosophy. I am fortunate that I sit on the Denny's Franchisee Association Board so while I don't have control over what the brand does, I do have a voice. I also think Denny's respects that I have a very large investment in the brand. They frequently invite me to participate in groups and sit on committees that help make decisions for the entire brand.
Following is a list of the Denny's owned by Dawn Lafreeda in the Chicago area:
4609 N. Harlem Ave., Norridge, Ill., 60656
4824 N. River Rd., Schiller Park, Ill., 60176
126 Frontage Rd., Bolingbrook, Ill., 60440
975 E. Dundee Rd., Palatine, Ill., 60067
890 Milwaukee Ave., Vernon Hills, Ill., 60061
#20 Orland Square Dr., Orland Park, Ill., 60462