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When Denny's Was Danny's and Lakewood Was New

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I was quizzed the other day about Danny's Donuts and the origin of the Denny's chain. In local mythology, the original Denny's (now the nation's largest chains of family restaurants) was on Carson Street not far from Lakewood Boulevard.

Local mythology had it wrong. Chris Nichols (associate editor of Los Angeles magazine and tireless investigator of mid-century Los Angeles) discovered in 2012 that the origin of what are now 1,600 Denny's restaurants was some miles away, although still in Lakewood.

(I have Chris to thank for sharing his research, which led to this nostalgic video, and photos in this commentary of two early Danny's Donuts.)

Richard Jezak and Lakewood resident Harold Butler began Danny's in 1953 by first attending "doughnut school," according to Nancy Jezak-Grgas, Jezak's daughter. Butler and Jezak opened their modest, 900-square foot coffee and doughnut shop in 1954 at the intersection of Bellflower and Del Amo boulevards in the newly incorporated Lakewood.

To accommodate shift workers at the nearby Douglas Aircraft plant, Danny's stayed open 24 hours. Jezak and Butler understood, if only by intuition, that the booming, industrial suburbs of Los Angeles were not only big and new but that they were a different kind of place, woven together by men and women who drove to work at all hours. Roadside food was important to them.

When newer Danny's added a grill and began serving meals around the clock, the irritated owners of Coffee Dan's, another chain of 24-hour restaurants, objected. With a vowel shift, Danny's became Denny's in 1960.

As Denny's morphed from Danny's, the first Danny's on Bellflower Boulevard glazed its last doughnut and eventually became an early franchise of Kentucky Fried Chicken. By then, the renamed Denny's had grown from a second doughnut shop in Garden Grove to a 20-restaurant chain.

Richard Jezak left the partnership in its early years, tired of the constant traveling as Denny's expanded throughout the West. Harold Butler grew the chain, spun off Winchell's Donut Houses, and tried to parlay fast food into ownership of the Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas. That venture failed. But Butler went on to more grills and counters, eventually owning or managing the JoJo's chain, Sam's Hofbrau, Harold's Dinner House, Hershel's Deli & Bakery, and the Naugles Mexican restaurants.

Butler didn't catch the next wave of roadside food, however. He never regained the remarkable success that propelled Danny's into Denny's when he and Richard Jezak set up shop beside a boulevard in working-class Los Angeles.

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