Three Steps for an Applebee’s Turnaround

Applebee’s recorded a 7.2% drop in Same-Store Sales (Fortune) in the 4th quarter of 2016. With the end of Q1 of 2017 looming, my assumption is that it’ll be their 7th consecutive sales decline. With the recent resignation of DineEquity’s CEO and the hiring of iconic ad agency Grey, Applebee’s is no doubt gearing up for its attempt at a turnaround. Yet without three essential steps, Applebee’s will continue their downward trajectory.

Develop a tighter, more defined brand.

I’m not talking about a tagline like Neighborhood Grill and Bar. I mean actually define why you exist and your largest point of difference from your competition. When thinking about some of the brands in the casual dining category some have done a fairly decent job at differentiating to the consumer. Think Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse. Each brand has a theme.

What does Applebee’s specialize in? It’s not clear.

I’m not here to say that these brands are thriving and setting the pace for the restaurant industry, but remember that casual dining as a whole has had a rough two to three years and you have to give me a better reason than value alone for me to choose to dine at your restaurant. The brands above do that. This leads me to my next point.

Focus on your differentiator.

The brands mentioned above will always be on my shortlist if I’m thinking about or craving wings, burgers, or steaks. They deliver on what I’m craving and are established as specialized and innovators in what they specialize in. I can’t think of one thing Applebee’s specializes in. Nothing stands out for me. Even competitor TGI Friday’s while not specializing in a specific dish, is differentiating with its endless apps, which the company announced will be a permanent part of the menu.

Applebee’s is “famously” known as a grill and bar. So I was surprised when looking at their menu and there were stir-frys, pasta, tacos, and something called a fajita rollup. Hey, at least there wasn’t any Kale on the menu!. The menu read more like a Cheesecake Factory menu than Applebee’s. You’re a bar and grill. Give me fun, straight forward bar food. In today’s restaurant landscape, this would differentiate. I don’t want a caprese mozzarella burger from you, ever. Or a burger with an egg on it for that matter. Master the basic things that people love about bar food. You don’t even have onion rings as an appetizer!

Put the website to work.

Applebee’s website looks like it’s from 2006. There’s very little food imagery so there’s no craveability being created. The homepage isn’t responsive so it’s difficult to navigate to other pages on the website and the menu is filled with images of dishes shot at a distance, so it’s hard to see what a dish actually looks like. A website isn’t the most important channel for a restaurant brand but they need to improve the basics to get on the same level as their competition.

If Applebee’s takes these simple steps and give their audience a reason to come back and try them again, they have a chance to turn their slump around. It’s time for their people to listen to customers and vendors.

 

 

What do we make of these new brands in Fast Casual?

Sit down at Holler and Dash in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and take in the scenery around you; you’ll notice the smell of fresh baked biscuits, mason jars full of cold brewed coffee and an interior boasting bare brick walls and concrete floors. What you’re experiencing has been carefully concocted to attract a specific crowd – a millennial-centric crowd.

You might think that this is a hot new restaurant concept from an up and coming southern chef – you’d be wrong. Holler and Dash is the creation of well loved family brand Cracker Barrel. That’s right – the one and only. An invention out of necessity, Holler and Dash comes after Cracker Barrel exec’s discovered that the beloved Cracker Barrel brand was missing the mark with younger generations. Holler and Dash still features those homemade classics but with updates like a Red Eye Aioli and Tomato Jam topping their signature biscuits. You can tell that they’re catering to a different crowd! New brands like these aim for a crowd more focused on modern design and hip ingredients.

Cracker Barrel is not alone in this endeavor. Many aging restaurant concepts are developing new brands to capture an audience that their core offering is missing. Tony Roma’s opened TR’s Fire Grill to booming success in late 2015 and has been serving up locally sourced smoked meat, craft cocktails and an ambiance that attracts the ideal crowd. Don’t remember Tony Roma’s? (Hint: It’s the place for ribs.) You aren’t alone – not many people recall this once well loved establishment that started in the 70’s and that’s okay with them. “Most people don’t know,” says Tony Roma’s CMO Jim Rogers. And while Rogers is adamant that “We are comfortable with it being known that this is a concept developed by Tony Roma’s,” he stresses that “it’s a completely different concept,” and “we want it to live on its own.”

Why are so many aging brands opening new millennial-centric concepts? With the initial rise in Fast Casual, aging legacy brands like Cracker Barrel, Tony Roma’s, Texas Roadhouse and even Denny’s are looking for a way to redefine their portfolio and keep up with the shift in trends. In addition, the creation of new Fast Casual dining concepts with updated menu’s and modern executions allow legacy brands to try something new without having to interfere with their core business offerings.

Is this the fix for all legacy brands? No way. We have known for years that new offerings drive traffic. What we can understand from this kind of step into the creation of new restaurants by legacy brands is that the restaurant industry is always changing and that we will continue to see brands trying to find ways to stay relevant or expand their offerings. New brands can create buzz if executed correctly. If a restaurant concept like Texas Roadhouse can replicate their hospitality in a fast casual environment slinging burgers instead of steaks like they have with their concept called Jaggers, why wouldn’t they take the leap?

As a millennial who dines at legacy brand restaurants, these new offerings from restaurant chains I already know and love are not only exciting to me from a foodie perspective, but also give me a glimpse into what the future of restaurants could look like and how brands will stay relevant to their guests. I think the outlook is pretty great!

Here more about this approach on the F&RM Podcast.

Keep guests in your vision statement

Read the vision statement of some of the top dining brands and you’ll notice something quite odd. It’s focused solely on the success of the brand, and not at all on the people the brand exists to serve.

For example, Chili’s vision statement is “Chili’s love by 2020.” What on earth does that mean? To guests, absolutely nothing. Applebee’s is a list of corporate values. More of an appeal for shareholders than guests. Chipotle? “Change the way people think about and eat fast food.” It involves guests, but isn’t clearly about improving things for them. Panera Bread says “A loaf of bread under every arm.” Technically guests have arms, so we’re getting warmer.

The ideal vision statement is about the company and the specific thing it will do for customers to reach its big goal. Or at least a reference to what customers get from the brand that will help the brand get there. When the vision statement is solely inwardly focused, it’s telling. The Chili’s vision reads like the experience many guests have when they go to Chili’s; more about the brand moving customers than the guest’s visit. How do they hope to achieve Chili’s Love? Also, what?

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people.

McDonald’s vision is a very long and winding paragraph that includes references to the experience, their number one product and their guests. It feels very much like what you might believe McDonald’s is striving to achieve. Starbucks leaves out guests but puts a heavy focus on top-tier quality, integrity and corporate growth.

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people. If taking care of people or trying to give people a good time is not of interest to you, do something else. This is why it’s critical that any vision be centered around the guest. What will you provide your guest to grow your brand? That may sound difficult to define, but that’s the key. It’s the difference between independent restaurants and chains.

The sole proprietor or chef-led restaurant is still focused on guests. On delighting them. On pleasing them. On earning their next visit. Chains tend to lose this focus as they grow and expand into new markets. Corporations add words like integrity and supply chain to their visions to appeal to shareholders. Independent restaurants work for every visit and successful locations never lose site of the guests. To be fair, independent restaurants do not have a vision statement.

That’s part of the problem for large or growing brands. The vision statement is meant to direct the entire company towards a goal. A big goal. It’s interesting that many (most?) audacious futures don’t have customers. Chili’s Love by 2020. The vision statement should definitely include customers if only to identify the party that will fund this future state. But that’s a copout. A focus on the ‘love’ of the brand is not a destination that can ever be reached. It’s incredibly heady and vague. NPS and sentiment data are valuable tools, but neither is an effective way to measure the vision of the brand.

This post was inspired by and borrows from this fun and inappropriate episode of The Brand Hole podcast.