Interview with Denny's Diner owner & son - Molly Van Schoyck and Chad Van Schoyck

Visitors and locals alike know and love the one-of-a-kind restaurant in Lake Delton that's called Denny's Diner. Owned for over thirty years by Dennis and Molly Van Schoyck, what started off as a simple deli has transformed over the years into a diner that now houses an eclectic collection of items ranging from the nostalgic and historical, to the silly and absurd. Recently I had the pleasure to sit down with Molly and her son Chad to learn about the history of the diner, as well as how the unique d├ęcor came to be.

So I got to ask - who is “Denny” ?

MOLLY VAN SCHOYCK: My husband’s name is Dennis.

Were you two born in the Dells area?

MOLLY: We aren’t originally from the Dells. My husband was born in Portage, I was born in Milwaukee. I moved here in 1959, and we have a son and a daughter born and raised here in Lake Delton.

Did you always want to own a diner? Tell me how this all came about.

MOLLY: Well, we just kind of fell into it I guess. At first by my husband. He was a chef at Delview at the time, and also a cook down in the Dells. My father and Tom Kaminski were very good friends. He kind of said that the offer was out there if anyone was interested in it. They liked my husband’s work ethics and thought that maybe he could handle it.

So you weren’t the original owners of the restaurant?

MOLLY: No, we’ve had it for a little over 30 years.

CHAD VAN SCHOYCK: I think it was in 1980.

What was it called back then?

MOLLY: Mr. T’s restaurant and Oberducks  – it’s been a couple things before that.

Did you guys immediately change it to “Denny’s Diner”?

CHAD:  It was Denny’s Deli first – actually Denny’s Deli Breakfast Emporium. It has changed a lot over the years. It hasn’t just been a 50s and 60s diner. I don’t know how long ago we turned it into “Denny’s Diner” - it’s always been basically a breakfast restaurant. It just kind of changed into what it is now and it’s probably gonna stay like this forever.

So it hasn’t always been a fifties and sixties diner filled with toys and collectables?

CHAD: The motif has changed over the years – adding stuff here and there – all the fifty and sixties memorabilia. Fifteen years ago all this goofy stuff wasn’t in here. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.

Are you big memorabilia collectors?

MOLLY: No, Dennis just has kind of a different sense of humor in that he sees things that might be catchy.

CHAD: I don’t know where he finds some of the stuff!

Do you continually add things?

CHAD: Yep – actually a lot of people bring stuff in for us. We give them a breakfast and they give us something to add.

MOLLY:  We built the railroad track (hanging from the ceiling) awhile back. We put the mural outside on the building this past year, and were going to add a little more this year.

You are well-known for your cinnamon rolls. How did that come about?

MOLLY: A little bit of the history that people might know who grew up in the area. A gentleman by the name of Tom Harper – of Harp’s restaurant downtown in the Dells many, many years ago –he’s the one that originally made the cinnamon rolls. My husband and he became friends, and he’s the one that gave my husband the recipe for the cinnamon rolls. Taught him how to make them, and gave him the secret ingredients that go in them . . .

CHAD: And it hasn’t changed since.

What’s your most popular item on the menu?

CHAD: On the weekends I think Eggs Benedict – and of course the cinnamon rolls. But also the hash browns – people are infatuated with the hash brown. (laughs)

Do you know approximately how many people come through here each year?

CHAD: You know, I’ve never figured that out – but it’s a lot. Pretty much every weekend we’ll serve 400 people a day - and we’re closed by two o’clock – and that’s every weekend. Then during the week during the summer every day is like that. We’re just hammered day after day.

I noticed your kitchen isn’t that large. Is it hard to serve that many people during the busy season?

CHAD: We’ll do 300-400 people a day, and there will only be two cooks working off this (rather small) grill, but we’ve got the system down pretty good. Sometimes it’s a lot harder than you can imagine. We’ll have a waiting line down the sidewalk, and this is all we got. I’ll go to friends of mine that own other restaurants and see their kitchen and be like – you got no idea how good you got it! But, even from our little room, we put out a lot of stuff.

I imagine you have to have a good crew helping keep things running smoothly. Do you have much turnover?

MOLLY: We’ve had the same help for quite a while. In fact, Rachel (a waitress) came with the restaurant when we got the restaurant about thirty-one years ago. She’s worked with us all these years. We’ve had other ones that have been with us over twenty years, so we’ve been very fortunate about that.

Do you use a lot of pre-made items to make things easier on yourself, or do you make everything here yourself?

CHAD: Everything here is homemade. Everything from the Canadian bacon, the Eggs Benedict, the corn beef hash. We make our own barbeque sauce and our own hot sauce. We make it all. Pretty much everything from scratch.

Have the indoor waterparks that have popped up over recent years helped or hurt things for you?

CHAD: It’s made it much more a year-round business then it used to.

MOLLY: But being we have been here so long, we don’t have to do any advertising. Our advertising is word of mouth.  People will walk in and say: “There’s the train they told us about.” That, and return business.

CHAD: People that have been coming for years and years – even before the waterparks – still come here.

MOLLY: We’ve seen 3rd generations of families . . .

CHAD: We’ve seen them come and go – lots of regulars pass away – but we get new regulars.

Besides the regulars, do you get any unusual or out-of-the-ordinary customers?

CHAD: We are all fairly convinced that the strangest people in the world come in here – hardly a day goes by that were not like WOW . . .

MOLLY: Perfect Denny’s Diner material!

CHAD: That’s exactly what we say – that they belong here. Especially in the summer time – like, where did you come from??? (laughs)

Any famous people come in to dine?

MOLLY: We’ve had Tom Wopat (Luke Duke from the TV show The Dukes of Hazard), one of the Oak Ridge Brothers came in, Robin (Zander) from Cheap Trick came in . . .

CHAD: Other than that no one famous, but LOTS of legends – you know what I mean.

What’s the most memorable thing that has ever happened here?

CHAD: Well, two years ago the fire truck fell into the building! I think it was my first day off in like three months, and I was at a Wisconsin Badger game. I remember it was beautiful out, and I get a phone call. Somebody had forgotten to put the parking brake on at the fire station across the street, and the truck rolled all the way across! It managed to miss the main building, but it took out all the dumpster area.
Then a few years ago somebody through a rock through the window out front. So while we were having that fixed, we took Elvis (a full size statue) out. We put a sign out there:  “Elvis has left the building” The Dells Events ran a story on that too.

What about you Molly, anything over the years that you’ve found interesting?

MOLLY: What always amazed me is that there always was a bear on the string going back and forth (riding a small toy bike on a line stretched out across the back of the restaurant), and the bear fell off a couple years ago. So, we’ve had a duck up there (riding it) ever since. People that come in will always ask: “What happened to the bear?”
They’ll notice stuff like that?

CHAD: Yeah, how do you remember there was a bear up there? (laughs)

MOLLY: Then some people don’t want to sit there because they’re afraid that it’s going to fall on them.

Because I’m tall, every time I come in here I end up knocking into it – even when I promise myself it will never happen again! (laughs)

MOLLY: I was going to say, you can tell them a hundred times not to stand there, but they’ll stand right under it. Especially when it’s busy. We have to pick it up five to six times a day!

So what is your favorite aspect to the place?

CHAD: My favorite thing in here is that old (moonshine) still back there. We’ve had lots of people offer to buy that from us. The collectors collect those things. I had no idea. I just thought it was pretty cool. We’ve been offered up to $300 bucks for it.

How about you Molly?

MOLLY: Well, I guess mine is probably the (full size original) telephone booth. A lot of kids and their parents get a kick out of that. Often parents will tell kids that it is a telephone booth, and the kids are just amazed. They have no idea what those things are: “What do you mean a telephone booth?”

I saw the disclosure sign out by the front entrance that the diner is not affiliated with the chain Dennys - I’m sure you’re often asked about that.

CHAD: People ask ALL the time . . .

MOLLY: When they came into town they asked us to change our name, but the people that had the other Denny’s diner were friends of ours and I think they may have stepped in and said: “You know, let’s just let it go.” We don’t need to fight it that much anymore.

CHAD: They just said put a disclaimer on the door – we were HAPPY to do that!

Anything planned for the diner in the future?

CHAD: Were not really going to change much – at all. Maybe just add dinner at night. The menu doesn’t change a whole lot, but we’ll always add something – play with things – see how it works.

MOLLY: We have been leasing it all these years, and as of the 1st of this year we purchased it. We’ve worked a lot of years just leasing the place, so it was a good reward to work all those years and yes, it is finally ours.

Sounds like a labor of love.

CHAD: I do love it – it’s the only thing I know how to do. I love to come here every day and half the people you know what they’re gonna have before they order it. They always have the same thing!