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Nathaniel Cooper thought that he could help repair the image of Denny’s. Denny’s thought the same. It was 1997, and the Spartanburg, S.C.-based restaurant chain was trying to repair its relations with minority customers, after having settled a pair of class-action racial-discrimination lawsuits in 1994 for $54 million. Cooper, a native of Prince George’s County and a lifelong Denny’s patron, was a model candidate for the company’s Fast Track program, designed to groom minority candidates for Denny’s franchise ownership.

In July of 1999, Cooper opened a Denny’s in Hyattsville. His vision, he says, was of a place where all people would be treated equally. “I thought, This is good. It will bring black people back, and also other minorities like Asians and Latinos,” says Cooper, now 40. “You all may have a bad taste in your mouth about Denny’s, but this is my Denny’s.”

But the opportunity didn’t work out the way Denny’s—or Cooper—had hoped. After an initial wave of good publicity, the relationship between company and franchisee turned into a series of disputes and disappointments. On July 24, 2001, Denny’s took the awkward step of shutting down what was, at the time, one of its few black-owned franchises. And Cooper was left with the knowledge imparted by a crash course in racial and corporate politics.

For all his plans of serving up breakfast in an atmosphere of racial harmony, Cooper says he immediately found himself surrounded by tensions. Some white customers, he says, were rude to nonwhite workers. Nonwhite customers were suspicious of his Denny’s because of the chain’s reputation. And he was the buffer between the public and a corporation that was trying to adjust to a new way of doing things.

“One woman came in and said, ‘You all discriminate! Didn’t you see 20/20?’” Cooper says. “She wanted to know why a white couple was seated ahead of her. It was because she didn’t answer my calls at 9:15, 9:20, and 9:25. I was doing everything by the book, and to have someone who looks like me say that I discriminate because I’m a part of Denny’s—it cut me.”

At the same time, Cooper was trying to assert his own identity in the standardized corporate culture of Denny’s.

“I wanted to put African-American artwork on the walls,” he says. “I was told that I couldn’t do that—that the brand standards don’t allow for art. I decided to close my restaurant for Thanksgiving to feed the homeless because I wanted to give back—and from a business standpoint, you don’t make any money on Thanksgiving anyway. I wanted this to be a prototype for Denny’s, but they fought me tooth and nail. They told me no.”

Ray Hood-Phillips, chief diversity officer for Denny’s, says that the company wanted Cooper to succeed. “We tried and tried, but in the end, the restaurant had to be closed. He was consistently stumbling in major areas.” she says. “Some people just don’t belong in this business—they’re either not gifted in it, they don’t want to do it, or their attention is elsewhere.”

Of Cooper’s Thanksgiving plan, Hood-Phillips says, “Denny’s never knew anything about it.” She also says that there is a book of approved artwork suitable for hanging in Denny’s franchises. “There is Indian, African-American art—we want to make sure that everyone has something that appeals to their own community.”

Prior to the opening of his restaurant, Cooper was pursuing a career in hotel management—working in several hotels in the Washington area and in Wilmington, Del., where he currently resides. Cooper says that he left a world of tailored suits and expense accounts behind to come to Denny’s, but wasn’t ready for the challenges.

“I wasn’t prepared for that world,” he says. “I was taking golf lessons. One hotel paid me to take a class in wine tasting. I was learning Japanese protocol. I was so far removed from the Denny’s environment.”

The company maintains that Cooper’s refusal to toe the company line spilled over into his business practices. “He was buying products from people not approved by Denny’s, and, in the end, what he was serving was not the same product,” says Hood-Phillips. “All franchises and company stores go through inspection. We check for approved products, restaurant cleanliness, restroom cleanliness, food-safety procedures—he violated them.”

Cooper disputes Denny’s account of the inspection results. He says he compared notes on inspections with a white Denny’s franchisee in the area. “I asked him where he bought his fries, his produce, his buns—everything,” Cooper says. “We were going to the exact same place. I asked him if it was marked on his inspection. He said, ‘No—of course not.’ That’s when I said, ‘I gotta go.’ I don’t mind corporate structure and compliance, but their policies were inconsistent.”

Narrowly speaking, the relationship was a bust: Denny’s didn’t keep Cooper as a black owner, Cooper didn’t keep his Denny’s franchise.

But both parties seem to have benefited from the minority program. Of the 1,050 locally owned Denny’s franchises nationwide, 45 percent are now minority-owned, up from 1 percent in 1993. The restaurant’s parent company, Advantica (now Denny’s Corp.), ranked first on Fortune magazine’s annual listing of 50 Best Companies for Minorities in both 2000 and 2001, and took third place for 2002.

Cooper, meanwhile, has founded a restaurant more to his own tastes. The Java Head Cafe opened in College Park in 2000 and moved to 12th Street in Brookland this past May. “Java Head is my passion now,” Cooper says. “I’ve tried to take as many positives as I can from what was a negative experience. I have forgiven [Denny’s], and myself, and I’m working towards my next goal.”

And the Hyattsville Denny’s, he says, was a key step. “It wasn’t all bad,” Cooper says. “It gave me the credibility to open Java Head. I always wanted to open a restaurant, but if you don’t have the experience, you can’t get the experience—someone had to give me a shot. After Denny’s, I had credibility in the public eye and in the industry.”

Inside Java Head, there is nothing reminiscent of a Grand Slam Breakfast. Tables are placed close together to facilitate conversation, Al Green blares from the sound system, and as one employee whips up a coffee drink, a regular customer reaches across the counter to give him a hug.

Cooper has not completely turned his back on the corporate world—he hopes to use his contacts in the hospitality industry to have his Java Head brand coffee distributed in hotels. But he says he savors the freedom of running his own establishment. “We have poetry nights and open-mike nights, and there will be 15 to 20 people,” he says. “If we have to stay open until 1 in the morning to get everyone on, we can do that. At Denny’s, it was ‘Close at 11.’”

“I used to say that all people are equal—but in the real world, all people are not treated equally,” he says. “I stopped saying that a long time ago. I treat everyone fairly. You don’t have to like everyone, or love everyone, but you have to treat everyone fairly.” CP