Even though there are more self-identifying foodies than ever in America (thanks to Instagram), casual dining chains haven’t benefitted from this culinary boom. Near universal declines have occurred across the category, and several restaurants have shuttered locations over the past year.
But in 2018, Applebee’s has started to see a shift. The chain’s CMO, Joel Yashinsky, said that in 2018, Applebee’s is on track to have its best results in the past 14 years. It saw a 7.7 percent same-store sales increase in the third quarter. Not only that, same-store sales have grown for 43 consecutive weeks.
Yashinsky credits the growth to a strategy of doubling down on what Applebee’s is known for, which he said is “being that comfortable place that guests can come to every day.”
“There’s an important place in America to provide a casual dining experience,” he said. “Guests are looking for that, a place where they can go spend an hour away from the everyday grind of the world that they face, and do so in a way that’s fun with family and friends.”
In the company’s marketing, it has reinforced that message through the return of its iconic “Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood” campaign—driving home the idea of Applebee’s as a comfortable, affordable local eatery.
“We recognized that what our brand has stood for for almost 40 years holds as true today as it did back then,” said Yashinsky. “We’ve been able to leverage that, as well as really listening to what customers are looking for today. And that’s obviously critically important for any type of business.”
He added that the company is focusing on what the customer wants. And oftentimes, those are the simple things: An affordable menu, a restaurant that acts as a respite from the hectic world around them. “As we’ve looked at a broad list of initiatives we’ve undertaken, they’ve all been focused on our guests and who they are, and delivering what they’re asking for,” said Yashinsky.
One of the most successful initiatives is Applebee’s dollar drinks: A monthly offering of $1 cocktails, oftentimes pegged to a specific season or holiday. A particularly winning example is the Dollar Zombie cocktail Applebee’s rolled out in October. Yashinsky said that the idea for the blue-hued rum cocktail with a gummy brain garnish was crowdsourced by guests. The brand promoted the special with giveaways on Facebook Live as well as a spot, run, quite fittingly, during episodes of The Walking Dead. He called it an example of the brand trying to “reach our guests where they were.”
Facebook Live is also representative of a push inside Applebee’s to win more millennial customers. A lack of young guests has been one of the brand’s biggest recent headaches. Earlier this year, the brand announced plans to close 60 to 80 stores, citing a lack of millennial foot traffic as the reason. Increasing the “buzz-worthy” factor of the Applebee’s brand is how they’re trying to combat this.
“We’re trying to play a role where we’re engaged in social media in ways we weren’t before,” said Yashinsky. “We’re connecting the story and our message across everything that we’re doing in different ways that will connect with the guests.”
Applebee’s may be seeing promising numbers, but the brand is not completely exempt from the challenges its category is facing: It did announce plans to shutter up to 80 stores this year. But Yashinsky remains hopeful about the future of casual dining in the United States.
“We see a lot of positive momentum moving forward into next year and beyond,” said Yashinsky. “It’s an exciting place to be.”