As we revealed yesterday, the diner chain Denny’s has secured a big Hobbit tie-in and is releasing a new, Hobbit menu plus collectible trading cards on November 6th.  Staffer greendragon had the pleasure of visiting Denny’s HQ to find out what this is all about, and she was surprised by what she discovered.  Here’s what she had to say:

OK, full disclosure here folks.  I have never been to a Denny’s.  I didn’t know what their food is like but I had my assumptions – fast food, all frozen, pre-cooked, processed rubbish, I thought…  And then I heard they were going to have a Hobbit movie tie-in campaign.  Hooommm.  Sounds like orc mischief to me; slap a few gimmicky names on a few already-designed dishes and make a fast buck.  Right?  Turns out, I was wrong; read on to find out what I discovered yesterday….

Denny’s are so proud of their new campaign that they took the bold step of inviting, along with other internet writers and bloggers – geeks and foodies! – to their headquarters to learn all about their plans for bringing Middle-earth into their restaurants.  That’s seven independent writers, many of whom may have arrived with the same doubts I had, all unleashed on the internet to say what they like about Denny’s!  As John Dillon, their Vice President of Marketing, remarked to me, ‘We knew it could backfire. But we felt so confident in what we’ve created, we invited you in….’

Truth is, I was surprised and impressed by what we learned, and by the ‘unexpected journey’ Denny’s themselves have undertaken.  First of all, a little perspective on this campaign:  these promotions are not quickly nor lightly decided.  Warner Bros. are very picky about who gets tie-ins to their movies; and for The Hobbit trilogy, Peter Jackson himself looks at proposals for partners.  On Denny’s side, this is not the first time they have had a movie tie-in – just last holiday season, they had an Arthur Christmas promotion, and past partnerships include Dreamworks Animation’s Madagascar.  They also turn down MANY invitations to work with movies.  When Warner Bros. approached them about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, however, they were excited.  As Sharon Lykins, Senior Director of Product Development, told us, ‘We saw it as a natural fit.  We thought about that scene [at Amon Sul] where they cook sausages in a skillet – it’s perfect for Denny’s!’

Warner Bros. had their own reasons for being interested in Denny’s.  The movie studio wanted somewhere which provided a ‘sit down atmosphere, an immersed experience’; a quick ‘in and out’ fast food venue was not what they were looking for.  With two geeks in their test kitchen – both Lykins and Senior Manager, Corporate Chef Scott Richard are fans, and Richard remarked that creating a Hobbit menu was ‘a dream come true’ – Denny’s accepted the challenge and set about convincing WB that they should indeed be the chain chosen for this promotion.

The test kitchen went to work, pondering, creating, and dismissing many ideas! ‘We had a genuine excitement and interest in this!  We wanted to build products that reflected hobbits … to be true to the ‘rustic’ feel of the Shire,’ said Lykins.  ‘All at Denny’s felt very strongly that this HAS to be authentic.  We wanted true fans to feel we had put some thought into it.’  (VP Dillon told me, ‘We knew if we only half did this, we’d screw it up – we had to go all out.’)  So naturally, they used mushrooms and ‘po-tay-toes’ in dishes; but they took it further than that.   For example, they considered Lembas bread French toast – but decided that true Lembas bread would be too hard.  Going back to the book, however, they noticed that Tolkien describes ‘two beautiful round seed-cakes’ in Bilbo’s pantry – so ‘Seed Cake French Toast’ made it onto the menu.  Those contents of Bilbo’s pantry, listed by the Professor, were the source of many ideas; they were also inspired by the scene with trolls William, Bert and Tom, and created a milk shake with s’mores cookie pieces as the ‘Lone-Lands Campfire Cookie Milk Shake’.

Many ideas were tried and dismissed – only the winning products, which would appeal both to Hobbit fans and to other diners in their restaurants, made the final list.  Eventually, having convinced WB that their campaign had thought and attention to detail behind it, and was ‘not just something on a cup,’ Denny’s won the rights to the tie-in campaign.

Denny’s knew, of course, that the promotion couldn’t only be about food; many fans are also collectors, and an exclusive collectible is part of any good movie tie-in.  For The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Denny’s have created twelve trading cards – and interestingly, so far these are the ONLY trading cards of any kind which will be released for the first Hobbit movie!  There are ten regular cards and two hard-to-find, exclusive cards.  Anyone purchasing an entrée from the Hobbit menu receives a packet containing two cards and a coupon for future use at Denny’s.  The cards are very nicely designed  – produced by Denny’s themselves, but of course carefully checked and approved by WB – and will satisfy those hoarding instincts amongst eager fans.

Next Denny’s needed an advertising campaign – and their PR folks have done a stellar job! For the first time in their history, Denny’s went with a ‘teaser campaign’ – and had a dwarvish expert from the movies write the runes for those billboards in Los Angeles!  Other fun images include Thror’s map wrapping silverware, and whipped cream on a smoothie, shaped like Gandalf’s hat!  The Hobbit menus are also a thing of beauty – wonderful pictures of Middle-earth, starting with Bag End, going up through rolling fields, to waterfalls, soaring eagles and way up on a snowy mountainside… a little Denny’s, precariously perched!  As well as these lovely menus, outlets will be decorated with signs and posters; servers will have buttons with the Hobbit acorn; and placemats will include four QR codes which can be scanned for exclusive content!

There is more to tell – and in a further post, I’ll share some ‘spoilers’ about the exclusive content and some other little secrets which we gleaned throughout the day.  Meanwhile, I can’t finish this post without saying a word or two about THE FOOD!  We were lucky enough to get a taste of all the new Hobbit menu items, and I was stunned by how good it all was.  (I was also impressed by the kitchen and pantry – full of actual FOOD, not chemicals!  Denny’s burger, for example, contains nothing but meat and a little salt; they’re always made fresh, so no need for preservatives.)

Believe me, I’m picky about my food, and if the trading cards were exciting but the food terrible, I’d write that here.  I have no vested interest in Denny’s; but the truth is, it was all delicious.  The ‘Hobbit Hole’ cheddar bun contained a fried egg in the middle, and the yolk was still runny and perfect for dipping the round ‘door’ of my hobbit hole!  The ‘Shire Sausage’ is a chunky, peppery, pork sausage – Denny’s were looking for an English style sausage, and as a Brit who bemoans the lack of English sausages in the US, I can testify that they’ve come pretty close.  The ‘Lone-lands Campfire Cookie Milk Shake’, which I mentioned above, was addictively delightful, and I’m still dreaming of the sinfully good ‘Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies’ – hushpuppies of red velvet cake with white chocolate chips, accompanied by cream cheese icing for dipping!

It being holiday season, the menu wouldn’t be complete without turkey, and as well as a ‘Dwarves’ Turkey and Dressing Dinner’, there is ‘Gandalf’s Gobble Melt’ – a grilled turkey sandwich with stuffing and cranberry honey mustard sauce, with a side of gravy.

OK, this isn’t health food.  Sugary, cheesy, meaty and filling, it wouldn’t be great for you to eat it every day – but then, I wouldn’t eat my mother’s fabulous roast dinners and steamed puddings every day, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious!  For comfort food or for an indulgent treat, Denny’s menu is right on the money.

So – America’s diner becomes Middle-earth’s diner;  and in spite of my misgivings, it turns out to be a great idea.  Creative, fun food, carefully planned in reference to the film AND to Tolkien’s books; wonderful graphics and collectible cards; and all coming from a place of enthusiasm and passion on the part of Denny’s themselves.  Let me tell ya, if you want to feast like a hobbit, get down to your local Denny’s from November 6th.  Fans will love it; children will be excited; and Denny’s regulars will enjoy some new treats.  I know I’ll be back for more of those red velvet ‘puppies’….