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Obituaries

Harold Butler; Founder of Denny's Chain

July 11, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harold Butler, who created the Denny's and Winchell's Donut House chains from his tiny Danny's Donuts in Lakewood and was considered a pioneer in the modern fast-food concept, has died. He was 77.

Butler, who founded or headed several other chains as well as Denny's, died Thursday in the Mexican resort city of La Paz a day after suffering a heart attack.

He had lived in the Gulf of California port city, where he owned a resort for the last two years.

In 1953, Butler started his 900-square-foot doughnut shop in Lakewood, selling fresh doughnuts filled with jam (not jelly) and high-quality coffee, then a rarity.

When he opened a second shop in Garden Grove, he added a grill and offered hamburgers as well as doughnuts.

The chain grew and split into the sit-down Denny's coffee shops and Winchell's Donut Houses.

Clearly not his own name, "Danny's" was chosen simply because it was a name customers would find familiar. When diners confused Danny's with the Coffee Dan chain, Butler changed the name to Denny's.

His concept for Denny's, which he and his competitors used repeatedly over the decades, called for low prices, high volume, uniform menus and fast service.

"After we opened our fifth restaurant, I looked at all the traveling going on in California and said to myself, 'My God, this is the future,' " Butler told The Times in 1987, reflecting on the development of the modern restaurant business.

In 1969, the visionary Butler faltered.

He attempted to expand Denny's into the Las Vegas hotel-casino industry by purchasing Parvin-Dohrmann Co., then owner of Caesars Palace and other complexes.

The Securities and Exchange Commission accused Butler of privately making a better offer to some Parvin-Dohrmann shareholders that was not available to all public shareholders. The deal fell through.

As a result, Butler stepped down as chairman and sold his Denny's stock, once worth $80 million, for $3 million in 1971.

At that time, Denny's had 800 restaurants. Now a subsidiary of the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Advantica Restaurant Group, Denny's has about 1,600 restaurants across the country.

Butler next founded JoJo's restaurants, Sam's Hofbrau, O.J.'s, Harold's Dinner House and Hershel's Deli & Bakery. He also purchased and ran the small Riverside 24-hour Mexican American chain, Naugles, from its founder, Richard M. Naugles.

When one chain's fortunes failed or declined, Butler went on to another one.

"I love to feed people," is the way he once explained his dedication.

Butler served on the advisory board to Cal State Fullerton in the mid-1980s.

He is survived by his wife, Jean.

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