Applebee’s in the age of UberEATS: you will get off your couch.

In this cutthroat era, there’s no point in subliminal messaging. This Applebee’s location in eastern Pennsylvania sure knew which way the wind blew.

Applebee’s allure

“You will watch the game here,” says the marquee. No cajoling—just some implicit coercion, all in good spirits. However, this pic comes from a beautiful Saturday in October of 2015.

And those were much more innocent times.

Throughout suburbia, it seems like the perfect combination: pull up to the parking lot at your closest branch of the Neighborhood Grill & Bar on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, and pivot between bites to one of the eight screens showing your favorite game.  And if you thinking I’m unfairly generalizing by referring to this scenario as quintessential suburbia, remember that we’re talking about Applebee’s here. Sure, some of them are in intensely urban areas—heck, Times Square has an Applebee’s—but everyone associates the brand with suburbia. Why shouldn’t they?

Love them or hate them, Applebee’s also until recently embodied the most stalwart of national restaurant chains. But that’s not necessarily the case any more: as independent restaurants have surged in popularity, particularly among urban-dwelling Millennials, their low-key demographic counterpart—an aging, cautious contingent that remains ensconced in the burbs—dominates the old standbys. But these conservative Boomers don’t spend as much. So that’s just not good enough to run a healthy profit. (And the more adventuresome Boomers are also driving into the hip urban neighborhoods to visit those edgy indies.)

Not only have declining same-store sales foisted middlebrow national brands into a multi-year slump, but some—even Applebee’s—have opted to close about twenty of their least profitable locations.  Even seemingly foolproof formulas like the higher-end Cheesecake Factory—that of the 30-page menu—have struggled.  The explosion of fast-casual restaurants, poised brilliantly between fast food and table-service oriented establishments, have helped spawn a explosion of mini-chains that, at least for now, boast high profitability. But people of all generations don’t linger around at those restos enough to watch a football game.

And so the hapless Applebee’s in the above photo may very well find itself getting felled by a double-edged sword. Many of the national chains are struggling. And I won’t begin to wade through political waters that seem to get rockier by the day, but NFL viewership is also giving less-than-subtle signals of a serious decline in viewership. It’s safe to assume at this point that things are going to get worse before they get better.  And with that in mind, how on earth could Applebee’s expect a football game to help it recoup some of that flagging revenue?

I’m no longer a regular in the suburban haunts where I caught the photo of this Applebee’s, but something tells me that, in 2017, the management at this location doesn’t make such a confident effort to lure diners with reference to the NFL. Then again, maybe I’m unreasonably assuming that the national HQ for Applebee’s hasn’t already placed this location on the chopping block. What a blow to the “neighborhood” that would be.

16 thoughts on “Applebee’s in the age of UberEATS: you will get off your couch.

  1. Alex Pline

    I’m surprised long standing chains like Applebee’s have’t gone the route of “big beer” vis-a-vis the “craft revolution” by coming up with faux brands such as Shock Top (I call it “schlock top”) that mean to capture the risk averse who want to experience something more “edgy” but in a safe, risk averse way. I’m sure they could do this and still maintain their economy of scale, but the question is would people fall for it?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good points, Alex. I can’t help wonder if the integrity of the Applebee’s brand depends on its complete predictability. And those who want some occasional edginess will simply go somewhere else. From my research, it appears Applebee’s has actually tried to make their menu a bit more stylish and experimental in an attempt to bring back urban Millennials, and the effort has flopped for them. Perhaps the only way they can get the urbanites into an Applebee’s is to let them mock the product: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpSo-VJTeE8

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        you are right about the extreme predictability being the key there. I was thinking that the company would abandon the Applebee’s branding entirely in more urbanish areas for a new skin with an edgier (only slightly) vibe. This is akin to pop up stores in traditional malls or like Andres Duany says about the last stage of revitalization: when the risk averse – the dentist from New Jersey – moves in.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          You could be onto something. I like that reference to the “last stage of revitalization”. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there have been studies to show that indie restaurants demonstrate long-term success when they “go chain”–after all, that’s just the market’s way of showing widespread approval of what initially seemed like a niche offering. Conversely, have there been examples of corporate concepts that have put an indie sheen on their former product…examples of success? Also, to some extent, pop-up stores in old-school malls might be experimentation, but it’s also a strong indicator that the mall is desperate for a tenant and can’t secure the capital-rich, high-profile national chains that it used to attract.

          Reply
          1. Alex Pline

            I think my example of “corporate craft” beer is exactly this: indie packaging on a mass produced product that typically is pretty generic tasting (for the predictability reason you mentioned). Not a bad thing necessarily but very carefully crafted to play to that risk averse audience.

          2. AmericanDirt Post author

            Guess I wasn’t fully familiar with the niche product, but it sounds like you hit the nail on the head. Sounds a bit like those musical bands formed through a handshake at the boardroom that get a small release and are deliberately made to look grungy so they have more indie Street cred.

          3. Chris B

            What’s the average lifespan of an independent chef-driven restaurant in a mid-market city? And who eats there?

            I can answer #2: foodie and food-loving people with moderately high incomes who eat out at least once a week. And we eat at those places way more than at chains…but we do eat at Applebee’s (and Olive Garden, Johnny Carino’s, and Cheesecake Factory) too, though less than when we had kids at home.

            I think the answer to #1 is “probably less than the life span of a concept chain”. I can think of one or two exceptions in my hometown (Ambrosia, St. Elmo) and Eric can probably name a handful of others.

            I think mid-market chain dining will survive, though maybe more with local and regional chains than national. Think Montgomery Inn in Cincinnati, Stone Creek in Indy, etc. (Though Stone Creek is part of a group that includes a bunch of higher end one-off chef concepts.)

  2. Chuck Benz

    Some chains “get it”. The Target down the street from me has a wide selection of VERY good local microbrews (Jacks Abbey, Lord Hobo – try both next time you are up). The key is that the local manager is given that flexibility. But Target is big enough that little thing doesn’t change their overall thing, and restaurants would be less uniform if they adopted local brews

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Exactly. Major restaurant chains thrive for people who don’t want to risk shelling out $15+ for something they might not like. It’s a perfectly reasonable philosophy that helped create the chain restaurant explosion in (I believe) the 1970s.

      Reply
  3. Brian M

    I’m a boomer (barely…I identify more with X (1963) and I have never in my life been inside an Applebees. Or a TGI Fridays. Why, when one can go to the local supermarket and grab something frozen from the cold foods aisle? Because that is what these flair-filled chains serve anyway?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good points, Brian. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but not only do the offerings in the frozen foods aisle resemble something you’d get delivered to your table at Applebee’s (and the other usual suspects), but don’t some of these restaurant brands (like TGI Fridays) sell their most popular options as frozen foods…as TV dinners, with the brand big and bold on the cardboard box?

      Also, I’m so glad you referenced the “flair-filled chains”…it’s always comforting to know that, even if Friday’s and Applebee’s go out of business, we’ll always have Tchotchke’s.

      Reply

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