A Grand Slam Hit

According to Jim Benware, the fast-food/family-style restaurant is the wave of the future

by Bill Simmon

Jim Benware has lived the American Dream not the Hollywood American Dream of Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, but the real-deal, genuine-article, honest-to-goodness American Dream.

The day he turned 16, Benware was hired as a crew person at a McDonald's in Springfield, Mass. Thirty years later, he owned and operated 20 McDonald's restaurants in Vermont and northern New York.

Last year, Jim Benware sold his 24 McDonald's restaurants to follow his heart and marketing savvy. He bought three regional Denny's restaurants in South Burlington and Rutland, and in West Labanon, N.H. the kind of family establishments he sees as the wave of the future.

He didn't win the lottery or inherit a fortune, he worked his way up from the bottom climbing the McDonald's ladder and working nearly every job in the McDonald's system along the way.

Today, Benware has sold his McDonald's properties and has embarked on a new chapter in his career as a restaurateur. In November 2004, he purchased three Denny's restaurants in South Burlington and Rutland, and in West Lebanon, N.H. Benware is excited by this new venture and sees it as having more growth potential than his previous franchises.

"I'm very happy now because this type of business, the family restaurant business, is sort of the wave of the future," he says. "If you look at a lot of the restaurants going in, they're that fast/casual, family style of restaurant." Benware sees Denny's as appealing to a wider range of people than either fast-food restaurants or the fancier "tablecloth restaurants."

"I think it's a place that people want to go to, sit down, be waited on, and have an opportunity to talk and socialize."

Benware's journey from burger flipper to restaurateur may have begun on his 16th birthday, but it wasn't until the day he was promoted to manager that he first glimpsed his potential.

"I was up front waiting on customers," he says. "The manager of the restaurant called me back and said, 'One of the managers is out sick for two weeks and I want you to be the manager for at least that time, and we'll look at it from there.' He made me manager on the spot."

Benware realized then that good work paid off. He slipped into the job of manager naturally and the staff didn't bat an eye, because he was the obvious choice for the job. "It just showed me that I was doing the right thing by setting the example," he says. "I think that was a positive thing for me. Eventually, somebody recognizes your talents."

Dennis DeSimone, general manager of Denny's in South Burlington, chats with Mark Siegenthaler of Camden, Maine, who's stopped by for lunch on his way through town. Benware encourages this kind of friendly interaction with customers who, he says, appreciate meeting the owner and manager.

That promotion was only the first of many that sent Benware up the McDonald's chain of command. Over the next few years he spent time as a swing manager, assistant manager, first-assistant store manager and area supervisor.

Finally, he spent 21 years as the director of operations under Harry Wallace of Wallace Enterprises, before Wallace's death in 1994 prompted Benware's leap into restaurant ownership. A year later, he took control of the 20 McDonald's restaurants, and opened four additional restaurants before selling the franchises last year.

One person who has witnessed Benware's rise in the restaurant business is Ralph "Lefty" Guillette, Benware's representative at W.W. Granger Supply from his McDonald's days.

When Guillette was introduced to Benware, he liked what he saw. "I told my friend, 'He's one of us,'" says Guillette, referring to Benware's native Vermont origins and attitude.

Guillette describes Benware as a sincere businessman. "He's the kind of businessman I grew up wanting to be," he says. "He was never given anything he has; he worked for it."

Now that he owns the Denny's restaurants, Benware has had to learn to operate an entirely different sort of business. He recently completed a 10-week course of training in Syracuse that taught him how to do every job there is to do at a Denny's.

"They made you do everything just like you were going to manage that restaurant as well as own it," he says. "I had to wait on tables and wash dishes and cook on the line, and reading there was a lot of reading."

Since buying the restaurants, Benware has repaired broken equipment, upped the lighting inside and out, and bought all new uniforms for Denny's staff. Ellie Argy (left), a hostess, and Heidi Booska, a waitress, pose behind the lunch counter.

The training program was mandatory for general managers but optional for owners. Benware opted to take it. "I'm glad that I went," he says, "because now I can really make a difference in my operation where before I would not have had that knowledge."

Owning three restaurants that are so far apart keeps Benware pretty busy. He tries to spend two days per week at each of the three locations. He lives in Colchester, so he tends to visit the South Burlington location more often, but for briefer stays.

"The South Burlington restaurant is on the way down to Rutland on Route 7," he says, "and it's also on the interstate on the way down to West Lebanon, so I find myself stopping in before I head to the other restaurants or on the way back."

When he arrives at one of his restaurants, Benware's eyes are on the details. "I do what I call my 'travel path,'" he says, "and that starts from the time I get out of my car." He begins by scanning the parking lot and landscaping to see if anything is amiss. He checks out the exterior of the building. Inside, he tours the dining room, keeping his eyes open for anything that needs doing.

Benware is particularly aware of cleanliness. "I love to see a restaurant clean," he says. "My staff knows that this is very important to me. One of the first things I'll do when I walk in, if they're a little busy and if it's not quite at the level we'd like, I'll get a vacuum out or just start picking up papers or wiping down tables." Once the place is looking good, he'll meet with his managers and cover any issues that need tending.

Once he's satisfied that everything is functioning properly, Benware gets to do the thing he loves most: spend time with his customers something that was difficult in the fast-paced world of McDonald's.

"Sixty-five to 67 percent of the business went through the drive-through there," he says. "Here there's a great opportunity to chat with customers while you're removing plates or filling up coffee or asking if everything's okay. That's probably my favorite part."

Another way Denny's differs from the fast food world is that it stays open 24 hours a day. "That's Denny's niche in the market," says Benware. "In this area, we are the only ones who serve breakfast all day, 24 hours a day."

He says the customers do exist in this area to support the long hours. Late-night hours can be quite busy, particularly Fridays and Saturdays. Fortunately, security has not been an issue. "That surprised even me," says Benware. "I thought that maybe with a 24-hour operation, you could have some issues, but we really haven't had anything at all."

Benware attributes his late-night luck to a combination of adequate staffing of the restaurant during those hours and recently improved lighting. "We've really increased the exterior lighting," he says. "Before, it was very dark and not a safe environment. Now you can probably read the newspaper at midnight in the parking lot."

Another change Benware would like to make is adding real Vermont maple syrup. "It's a natural," he says. "Denny's has very strict control over its menu, but they do have a process for getting things approved for certain regions. Vermont maple syrup is one that's currently going through the approval process."

In his spare time, Benware likes to spend quality time with his wife, Joanne, and their children at the farmhouse in New York where his father grew up. "It's about 250 acres of land," he says. "I get the opportunity to go snowshoeing, four-wheeling, pick blueberries, cut firewood. That's my hobby."

Benware also loves to read, though his reading list is that of a workaholic, he quips. "I usually read books on management, how to teach managers to manage, books on resolving conflicts between employees, stuff like that."

Someday he hopes to get in some pleasure reading. "I figure when I retire I can use that time to read novels and other books I have on my shelves. I've collected a lot of them; I'm sure I'll read them in due time."

Once he has his three restaurants working the way he wants, Benware plans to expand his Denny's empire. He recently put deposits on two pieces of property and is awaiting approval this month from the Denny's corporation to begin building on the sites.

He's not ready to divulge the locations of the sites, but he says one is in Vermont and the other is in northern New York. "I'm hoping to start growth and continue to grow Denny's restaurants in towns that will support the 24-hour concept," he says. "I don't have any particular number in mind, but it could be seven to 10 restaurants in five to 10 years something like that."

Considering Benware's history in the restaurant business, it wouldn't be too surprising to find him running the entire corporation by then.

Originally published in August 2005 Business People-Vermont