Applebee's just hired hot Boulder-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky -- the same creative outfit that Arby's recently signed -- to give the ubiquitous American meat-starch-veg spot an image boost of some kind. But here's the rub: Unlike Arby's, Applebee's doesn't really need a facelift.
If Applebee's goal is to cater to the insipid and unimaginative gastronomic whims of middle-class, middle-income suburbanites, then it's already there.
If the Olive Garden has taught us anything, it's that when popular chains venture too far out of their target demographics' culinary comfort zone, customers become confused and frightened. It's like telling kids that Santa and the Easter Bunny are bullshit. Applebee's could skip the big cash outlay to Crispin and simply push these five things that the restaurant is already doing right. Applebee's, you can thank us with a few to-go orders of spinach dip.
5. Location, location, location.
Ever notice how Applebee's has a knack for placing stores exactly where they will capture the most human traffic? Or, at the very least, in spots so strategically located that at the end of a long shopping day, you are too tired to refuse to eat there? Applebee's locations could not be more handy unless they were actually inside DMV offices. When Newt Gingrich's plan to colonize the moon works out, Applebee's will be the second building on that beloved, crater-ridden surface -- after Starbucks, of course.
4. I can haz steak?
Applebee's "2 for $20" meal specials include an appetizer and two entrees, and that's a pretty decent bargain considering the price of steak is about on par with the price of the gas you need to drive to a restaurant these days. Getting those pesky working-class diners to ditch their weekly fish-and-chip do at Long John Silver's is a stroke of genius by Applebee's, and after diners down a few fluorescent cocktails, servers should find it easy to pimp out sides, desserts and more fluorescent drinks to boost those check averages. And all it's really costing Applebee's is a few extra tubs of ranch dressing.
3. There are two sides to every store.
It's unclear whether T.G.I. Friday's or Applebee's holds the original patent on the cleverly cross-bred single's bar/family dining concept, but Applebee's has managed to couple crowds of restless, divorced thirty-somethings (the twenty-somethings are working there) in search of beer and emotional fulfillment with pre-divorce thirty-somethings in search of a ready source of macaroni and cheese to feed their broods after an afternoon shopping at Sam's Club -- in the same building at the same time. People who normally wouldn't be at the same cocktail parties can co-exist peacefully over boneless chicken wings and chicken wonton tacos -- all thanks to Applebee's.
2. They keep the flavors in check.
Another thing Applebee's is really good at is not scaring folks. There is nothing on its menus that might send customers scrambling to Google-search the mysterious item on their phones. Every dish is gentrified to produce no unfamiliar seasonings, flavors or textures that might resemble international cuisine in any way, and the closest thing to ethnically inspired that Applebee's menu has to offer is the "Queso Blanco" dip, which it wisely serves with potato chips.
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1. Applebee's doesn't give people reasons not to eat there.
With the exception of occasionally boozing up toddlers, Applebee's doesn't go out of its way to inspire customers -- or offend them. Middling expectations for both food and service have kept the chain in the happy median of public opinion for so long now that playing it safe is exactly why people want to eat there. In the dating world, Applebee's would be the "he'll/she'll do since dating makes me think too much" person. From a PR standpoint, Applebee's may rate closer to lazy than resting on its laurels, but if the company can manage to not piss customers off while continuing to sell them fried mozzarella sticks, that'll be enough to keep stockholders in Urban Outfitters and off company execs' asses indefinitely.