Merced Denny's slams brakes on free food

There may not be a free lunch, but there was a free breakfast Tuesday at Denny's restaurants around the nation.

Well, almost all around the nation.

More than 1,500 Denny's restaurants joined in giving out free breakfasts to patrons between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. There were only three restaurants in the country that chose not to participate -- Baker in San Bernardino County; Las Cruces, N.M.

And Merced.

Eric Pacheco, manager of the Merced Denny's, said the Merced store didn't participate because it's already such a high-volume restaurant.

"We were the ninth-busiest in the nation last year," Pacheco said. "We wanted to deter some of the traffic."

Although the Merced Denny's didn't offer a free breakfast, it sold the Grand Slam breakfast for $1.99, and that also brought the people in. "When I got here at 5:45, the line was around the building," he said.

The Merced Denny's may not have had a free breakfast for its patrons, but the Atwater Denny's did, and people from up and down the Valley lined up outside the restaurant to wait patiently for their free Grand Slam breakfast.

Denny's got the word out about the free breakfast by putting a 30-second ad that aired during the Super Bowl and a full-page ad in Monday's USA Today. But some of the customers waiting for a table outside of the Atwater Denny's had heard about it in other ways.

"My husband works at the prison, and he e-mailed me about it," said Mitchelle Southern, of Atwater.

Amy Ruiz, of Merced, and Diane Mercado, of Atwater, were coming back from Modesto where they attend school. The two women decided to stop at the Turlock Denny's to take advantage of the free breakfast, but left when they saw how long the line was.

"The line was around the building -- much worse than here," Ruiz said.

Most of the people in line at the Atwater Denny's didn't know that the Merced Denny's wasn't participating in the free breakfast, but Robin Wickline of Merced did.

"I went online and found only three exclusions," Wickline said. "And one of them was Merced."

Although he had to drive to Atwater to get his free meal, Wickline said it didn't bother him. He believes that the Merced Denny's made a mistake in not joining in on the free meal.

"I think it's a public relations mistake," Wickline said. "A lot of people will come here and maybe like the Atwater location a lot better."

Leann Wright is the manager of the Atwater Denny's, and she was kept busy Tuesday. She was fully staffed, she said, with a total of 12 people taking care of customers.

"We served 732 people between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.," Wright said.

Denny's had expected that more than 2 million people across the nation would take advantage of the deal.

"This was really a lot of fun," Wright said. "I think it's good public relations. It reminds people that Denny's is still around."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or