In what may very well be the saddest last-ditch attempt to maintain relevancy in the history of American dining, Applebee's announced on Monday the "biggest investment in culinary excellence in the company’s history," part of its efforts to "to take back America’s neighborhoods."
As Americans become more educated about the fact that they don't have to eat lackluster, prefabricated food when dining out, Applebee's profits have fallen — sales at the chain eatery fell 3.7 percent in the first quarter of 2016, the Wall Street Journal reports. Don't get me wrong, Applebee's is still worth a boatload of cash — IHOP bought it for $2.1 billion in 2007 — but much like Big Beer saw its profits decline as Americans wised up to craft beer, Applebee's is having a harder and harder time defending its subpar offerings as diners become more entrenched in their cities' dining options.
Rather than sit back and wallow in an app sampler, Applebee's is fighting back — with steak. Yes, a restaurant notorious for serving the lowest-quality food they can legally still call "food" is going to focus on steak. "Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar will unveil a nationwide transformation that includes new American-made, wood fired grills as the centerpiece of nearly 2,000 of its U.S. restaurants (40 in Dallas) and will introduce certified USDA Choice steaks as the marquee item of a revamped and streamlined menu," according to the press release. "... the new Hand-Cut Wood Fired platform is the first chapter in the reinvention of the Applebee’s brand."
First of all, let's consider the fact that there are 40 Applebee's restaurants in Dallas. This city has one of the biggest and most active dining scenes in the country, and that scene includes 40 goddamned Applebee's. So what's about to happen to those 40 locations? SO MUCH, Applebee's says. New menu items will include "USDA Choice top sirloin steaks, bone-in pork chops, cedar-grilled salmon" and "new wood corrals stacked with split oak logs greeting guests at the entrance, accompanied by mouth-watering aroma of oak wood smoking."
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Applebee's rebranding strategy: stacks of wood and wood smells. Could this possibly fool anyone older than 8 years old?
The revamp will also include "upwards of 60,000 hours of training for employees, including meat cutter training," according to the release, and an "investment of more than $40 million by Applebee’s franchisees." Right now, Applebee's franchise owners around the country are sweating bullets at the realization that they'll have to dump a boatload of cash into their enterprises.
In the press release announcing the "Hand-Cut, Wood-Fired Platform," Applebee's readily admits that things have changed in the U.S. since the chain launched in 1980. "... Shifting consumer tastes and public perceptions have challenged its business performance," the press release reads. "The moves being initiated today are the first in a series of actions meant to change the story."
A few stacks of wood are not going to change Applebee's story, one of subpar food that's reheated to order in an environment that makes any sentient human feel as if they're being slowly tortured in the presence of honey barbecue riblets. The only way to change that story would be to throw away their business model and realize that in 2016, Americans want more from their food. They want a sense of place, a feeling of community. Slapping a few wood-fired grills into 2,000 restaurants is just another way for Applebee's to blow smoke.