EC Hall of Fame: Late Ray Danner shined with Shoney’s

Executive built retail empire on back of $600 grocery story investment

The Nashville Entrepreneur Center is more than a place for visionary business people and companies. The Trolley Barns facility also has a hall of fame. The range and depth of the Nashville entrepreneurial community is on display with the hall’s inductees, who made their mark in fields that include publishing, hospital management, finance, fulfillment and music business. Combined, the honorees have created thousands of jobs nationwide — but also close to home.

Nashville Post commends this quintet of entrepreneurs for their work and the legacies they have created.

There's an oft-told story from Ray Danner's life that thousands upon thousands of people claimed to have experienced.

On one of his famous impromptu inspections of a Shoney's restaurant, Danner found the front windows streaky. So incensed by the blemish on his restaurant, Danner smashed the plate-glass windows with a broom handle.

While the number of people who claim to have seen it is exaggerated — longtime Danner Co. executive Frances Guess said he heard the story from 10,000 first-hand witnesses  — it's no doubt illustrative of the way Danner felt about his flagship project.

Teaming up with Shoney's founder Alex Schoenbaum as a franchisee in 1959 — the first Danner-owned Shoney's was in Madison — Danner grew the restaurant to, at its height, 1,600 outlets with $800 million in annual revenues. Almost stunningly, Shoney’s posted 115 consecutive quarters of growth in the 1980s and 1990s, making it famous among Wall Street analysts for the easy "buy" they could tag on it every three months.

At its peak, Shoney's was the nation's third-largest restaurant chain. Danner expanded his company's reach, creating Captain D's, Lee's Famous Chicken and the Fifth Quarter Steakhouse, plus a host of other options as fast-casual became the hot concept in the 1990s.

The Danner empire started with a modest $600 investment — a small grocery store in the entrepreneur’s native Louisville. From there, Danner bought a bowling alley and service stations in his hometown and in Clarksville, before acquiring his first Shoney's.

Despite the chain's unprecedented growth, Danner remained hands-on: training bus boys or acting as a short-order cook when the kitchen needed a helping hand during one of his visits.

Danner retired from Shoney's in 1987 and then launched an eponymous investment firm. He died from pneumonia in August 2008.