After seventeen years, it looks like it is time for an update. The fortunes of Applebee's have risen and fallen, and apart from just being the history of one casual dining chain, the rise and fall tells a story about where the United States is in 2017.
Applebee's, after years of domestic and foreign expansion, is in a period of contraction, where they are closing between 105 and 135 underperforming restaurants. This is caused by several things: retail in general has had a heavy transformation in the past year, and the changes in retail, and in consumer habits, have had repercussions across sectors, including the casual dining sector.
Sometime around 2010 or 2012, the Millenial Generation started to be taken seriously. Rather than just being a cute and ambiguous term for younger people, there was a generational identity being formed: mostly in the hands of magazine thinkpiece writers, but there was some actual patterns that seemed to unite younger consumers. One was that shopping local, and shopping at independent, urban stores, which was considered a trend of "hipsters" that would presumably die out once they got real jobs and moved to the suburbs, became a widespread generational habit. Shopping malls started emptying, and big chain stores in malls, such as Sears and JC Penney's, started closing. That meant less people were visiting malls, and the restaurants like Applebee's that were scattered around them saw less incidental traffic. Also, younger consumers tastes in dining changed, and they didn't have a reason to drive out to the suburban sprawl just to visit Applebee's. And so, the chain started to falter, and they tried different things to win over younger consumers, including introducing "Chicken Wonton Tacos", which must be something millenials like because it doesn't make any sense. Alas, these efforts were for naught, and they decided to close some restaurants and refocus their restaurant back on its traditional appeal, with the brand president saying:
In my perspective, this pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests, as Applebee's intentionally drifted from its what I’ll call its Middle America roots and its abundant value position.
Whether this will be successful remains to be seen, but at the very least, the general state of American retail makes it look like Applebee's will have a difficult time rebuilding.
What is interesting to me is the desire for Applebee's to return to its "Middle America roots", which it does not really seem to have. The Applebee's corporation was founded in 1981, and seems to have spread most rapidly in the 1990s. Unlike some restaurant chains where there was an actual founder with a vision or a signature idea (such as Kentucky Fried Chicken), Applebee's menu and ambiance seems to have been designed by committee. Despite its subtitle as a "Neighborhood Grill & Bar", Applebee's are built almost exclusively in malls and shopping centers where foot traffic is impractical. There are other chain restaurants with unspectacular food but a common appeal backed up by nostalgia (I have great memories of pancakes at Denny's with my grandmother), but Applebee's doesn't really have that advantage. It seems to be in a difficult place for restaurants: it doesn't have the convenience, low price or ubiquity of fast food, it doesn't have the adventure of a unique restaurant, it doesn't have the quality of an expensive restaurant, it doesn't have the comfort or nostalgia of the local diner...and you can't nurse a coffee and English muffin until 4 AM, like you can at Denny's. So what a niche is for casual dining restaurant's like Applebee's remains to be seen.
It is also interesting, in light of the background of the ongoing brouhaha about cultural and generational politics, that Applebee's is claiming "Middle American roots" for itself, and that many people would agree. Apparently, Millenials who wish to have local community restaurants that are within walking distances of their house, that are founded and grounded in the community, and that have unique and individual characters, are the pretentious elitists, while the people driving to a restaurant next to a mall that was totally designed by strangers far away, and where the staff and cooks are anonymous strangers performing to a corporate template, are living the authentic small town life. The simulacrum that is casual dining is a microcosm for the simulacrum that is United States society.