When breakfast arrives, Kendra Seguin looks apologetic.
“This is slightly embarrassing, but I have to show my mom I got my free birthday breakfast,” she says as she holds her phone about the glistening bacon, sausage, over-easy eggs and hash browns.
Her driver’s license on the table confirms today is her 21st birthday. That was all she needed to redeem the free Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s. When it comes to birthday perks, there is usually some work before hand — signing up for a newsletter, downloading an app, a minimum buy, bringing three friends with you. But at Denny’s, you just show up with your ID and pay for the tax and tip.
No matter the weather or the state of the economy, there is always someone celebrating their birthday in the restaurant west of the Eaton Centre, says Prakash Raj. Raj is the chief operating officer of this location and another his uncle owns in Vaughan. They thought about putting the build-your-own Grand Slam perk on hold during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns as revenues took a hit, but they didn’t want to disappoint anyone. (It’s a $12.79 value, upgrades and premium options are extra.) Some of the celebrants are regulars, and about a third he sees once a year on their special day. Denny’s Canada has offered the free breakfast since the 1990s. Of the more than 70 Canadian franchises, only two opt out of the promotion (Niagara Falls and Nepean.) Every year more than 15,000 Canadians celebrate their birthday with a free breakfast.
For Seguin, a student at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), the birthday perk is a long-standing family tradition. Everyone in her family does the free Starbucks drink and Tim Hortons breakfast sandwich. She has always been aware of a good deal, signing up for email lists, searching through flyers.
“It’s definitely the way I was raised,” she says as she cuts into her eggs with the back of her fork. “My mom has taught me everything I need to know about being cost-effective.”
With rising inflation, a turbulent housing market and soaring grocery costs, birthday freebies provide goodwill and some respite for the wallet.
“I’ve actually been seeing a number of TikToks of people doing this, too,” she says. “Maybe it’s becoming bigger, or maybe it’s just the type of content I like on TikTok.”
For businesses, the promotions often become loss leaders, priced into the marketing budget as a way to get people inside, to spend right away (like a buy-one-get-one-free birthday deal) or encourage loyalty and future spending, says Richard Powers, national academic director at the Rotman School of Management. Nowadays, most corporations require customers to enroll in a loyalty program or download an app so they can monitor buying habits and tailor their pitches, he says. (In the US, Denny’s free birthday breakfast migrated to their online rewards program in 2021. In Canada, the free breakfast is not linked to the rewards program.) Birthday perks are just another way that companies compete with each other, and they are easy to copy.
“The winner in the end may only be the Birthday Boy or Girl!” he writes in an email.
Signing up means plenty of email all year long, but once June hits, Kendra Seguin dives into her “Promotions” tab in her Gmail for the birthday harvest. Seguin pulls out a postcard from Great Canadian Bagel for a half-dozen bagels. That’s her next stop from her. This afternoon, she will get her complimentary frozen strawberry lemonade at Starbucks.
It’s the lull between breakfast and lunch, and a cook sings along to ’80s hits as a waiter taps along at the host stand. Students sling their backpacks on their chairs, spoons clink against porcelain mugs, and every few minutes, a streetcar jangles by, casting a shadow over the restaurant’s muted but cheerful interior.
At Seguin’s booth, her phone lights up.
“What a great birthday breakfast and I see the expensive OJ too lol,” her mom texts.
Seguin says she would feel guilty if she didn’t buy anything.
Raj likes it when people bring friends, or order something else, but it’s not a requirement. Once, four people came in and shared one free breakfast. Another time, a woman called to see if her husband could pick up her birthday breakfast from her with her license from her because she had broken a bone. When she called a few weeks later to request a birthday meal for her 93-year-old housebound mother, he said yes, but told her that it was her last call-in from her. The freebie is a money-in promotion. During the worst of the pandemic, Raj made exceptions, but not anymore. Business is not back to 2019 levels, but some of the days they can break even. Inflation is the latest challenge.
The Grand Slam is a big breakfast, and Seguin can’t finish it. She gets the rest to go, pays for her orange juice, tax and tip, and walks outside. It’s lunchtime now, and the Bay Street crowd is streaming into the sunshine. Seguin heads down an escalator into the windowless PATH and scans the offerings at Great Canadian Bagel.
“This is embarrassing,” she says for the second time today. She feels bad that we’ve followed her here, only to discover her favorite cheddar herb bagels are sold out. The coupon is good for the month so she’ll redeem it another day.
Back at Denny’s, a few more free eggs are cracked that afternoon. The next day, there are three more birthdays.
Prakash Raj has never redeemed a freebie like this. “Not even a single drink,” he says with a laugh. But his gig is not without its perks. The orders nobody picks up, the meals made by mistake, those sometimes become his lunch from him. Especially french toast.
A sampling of birthday perks
(Plan ahead — most require a sign-up before your birthday.)
new york fries — Free regular fries for loyalty club members;
Tim Hortons — Free hot drink or breakfast sandwich for members;
Baskin Robbins — Buy-one-get-one free scoop for members;
Great Canadian Bagel — Free half-dozen bagels if you submit mailing address online;
Wok of FameBrampton: Free buffet on birthday with three paying guests and valid photo ID;
chatime — Free regular size drink for rewards members;
Kettleman’s Bagels — Dozen bagels for rewards members;
Mr Sub — Free small sub (certain kind) for rewards members;
Panera Bread — Free treat for rewards members;
Sephora — Birthday gift for Sephora members.
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