Knowledge19 - Denny’s serves up custom apps on a ServiceNow platter

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman May 8, 2019
Restaurant chain orders replacement for an elderly Lotus Notes/Domino platform, so it can keep feeding franchisees a steady diet of modern features and functions

Image of Denny’s logo

Denny’s is an American institution and, out of its more than 1,700 restaurants, the company’s diner on The Strip in Las Vegas is its number one outlet in terms of volume, with space for some 300 diners and an open-air balcony offering views of The Strip below and The Mirage’s erupting volcano across the street.

It’s also a stone’s throw from the Sands Expo Convention Centre, which this week is hosting ServiceNow’s Knowledge19 conference. At the event, attendees got to hear how Denny’s is using ServiceNow’s Now Platform for custom application development.

This replaces an elderly Lotus Domino/Notes system, which dated back to the mid-1990s, explained Joey Fowler, Denny’s IT director for technical services. By 2014, the company was running over 150 apps developed on this platform, but it was clear a switch in strategy was needed. Said Fowler:

As we continued to grow, we just kept noticing, ‘Hey this [platform] is a big endpoint for us.’ It was really outdated technology, not mobile-friendly at all and there were serious reporting limitations when it came to getting insights from the system.

Rapid application development

Custom apps are important to Denny’s, in part because of its franchise model of business. While the Denny’s on The Strip is company-operated, most of its restaurants are run by franchisees - around 92% of them in fact, or some 1,600 restaurants.

In order to maintain consistency across the chain, these franchisees are expected to run their diners in accordance with strict brand standards, using company-approved suppliers of food and equipment and company-devised programs for training and developing their staff. They must also report frequently to Denny’s HQ in Spartanburg, South Carolina on their performance.

In other words, there are a lot of complex workflows at play here and a pressing need for consistency and transparency.  

In response to its technology challenge, Denny’s set out five years ago to identify a cloud-based solution that would support rapid development of modern, complex business applications, offering user-friendly interfaces and accessible from any device. ServiceNow met all Denny’s requirements, said Fowler, but a big factor in the decision was that, by deploying the technology, Denny’s would get ITSM capabilities, immediately removing the need for several existing custom apps in Lotus Domino/Notes, including incident management.

That said, the transition to ServiceNow took some time, according to Eddie DeWeese, IT architect on the technical services team at Denny’s. For around two years after the rollout of ServiceNow, the team continued to receive requests for new Lotus Notes/Domino applications and updates to existing ones - until the decision was taken to impose a code freeze on the older platform, meaning that no more work would be conducted on it.

No easy lift and shift

Some careful decision-making underpins the ongoing process of migrating apps away from Notes/Domino to Now Platform, said DeWeese.

As we migrate Notes apps to ServiceNow, we ask ourselves three questions. Is it still used? Is it still needed? Should it be moved to ServiceNow? Most times, the first two answers are yes, but the third can be no - there are some custom apps that don’t fit in ServiceNow. But most of the apps do fit in ServiceNow and it’s an easy enough transition.

But I recommend that you don’t just lift and shift these apps. We don’t. As we move these apps, we’re re-evaluating the functionality of everything to see if it still fits the business needs. So we review that, and get new requirements, and try to merge these together to build something that really exceeds expectations in the business.

The first custom app to be rolled out using ServiceNow was the Pride Review app for the company’s operations team. This is used by field leaders who visit restaurants and assess them to make sure that premises, staff, service and food all comply with the company’s operating standards for its brand.

A more recent app is one for the legal team, to support document lifecycle management. Until this was rolled out in December last year, the legal team had to mail out a 250-page franchise disclosure document to every individual franchisee, every year. Each document was unique to its recipient, detailing their specific restaurants. A new ServiceNow app, integrated with Docusign, now handles much of the process automatically, pre-populating the form and emailing it out.  

There are apps for other departments, too. Finance has an app for receiving sales data from franchises, as well as apps for tracking costs relating to restaurants being remodelled and those undergoing repairs and maintenance. Marketing has an app that allows it to get sign-up from groups of restaurants run by different franchisees in the same area, in order to allocate budget for local advertising.

Denny’s grand slam

One of the biggest successes to date has been a new purchase contract system (PCS) app for the procurement team at Denny’s. This is used to manage agreements with suppliers of food and equipment for restaurants and to handle the delivery of ordered products to restaurants.

The original PCS app was written in Notes/Domino almost two decades ago and updated with a web interface in 2008. But in 2014, it was outsourced to a software provider, a decision that ended in a ‘trainwreck’, according to DeWeese. The third-party system was limited in functionality and came at a high subscription price - around $22,000 per month or $268,000 per year. It wasn’t a hard decision to bring it back in-house and rebuild it from scratch on the Now platform, he said.

That new app went live in March 2018 and, in the first year, saved Denny’s over $23,000, after taking into account the costs associated with the rebuild. Going forward, savings are likely to be over $250,000 per year, said DeWeeze, adding:

For the first six months after rolling this out, I’d get in the elevator and the CIO, the CFO, the CEO, they’d see me and be patting me on the back and hugging me, kissing me on the cheek, telling me how much they loved me. That’s the kind of recognition you like to get, right?

The work of rebuilding and migrating continues at Denny’s. There are currently five apps in development right now, said DeWeeze: four of these are migrations from the previous environment and one is a net-new application.

When the work to move over to Now Platform began, there were relatively few companies building complex custom apps on ServiceNow - in this respect, Denny’s considers itself a pioneer. The goal now, he says, is simple:

We keep on building.