What’s coming next
Applebee’s spoke a lot about franchisee profitability in the call. It also provided some glimpses into future innovation.
Beginning in 2020, the chain will start introducing server tablets across its footprint. “From a guest perspective, there are very clear benefits around speed, attentiveness and engagement,” Cywinski said. “From a server perspective, there are benefits in terms of ease of ordering, enhanced tips, and satisfaction. And from an operator perspective, there are meaningful labor savings associated with proper deployment as well as kitchen efficiencies due to a more balanced point-of-sale order flow.”
He added tablets have generated revenue benefits as all orders, particularly beverages, are more likely to be captured and data entered. Cywinski said they’ll be deployed in sequenced fashion throughout the next two years, with high-cost labor markets first in line to receive.
He said Applebee’s believes tablets can “meaningful enhance our guest experience” and are a “very contemporary cue for the brand.”
The chain also recently activated catering across its footprint. Cywinski expects the channel to represent a significant incremental sales layer—and one Applebee’s will begin leveraging aggressively next year.
“We're going to target both residential catering for families and family get togethers and social occasions, but we're also going to go after business catering as well because we believe in a lot of cases, our product would be more desired than some of the other ones that own that business today,” added CFO Thomas Song.
Back to the bottom line
Cywinski said Applebee’s hit three key milestones in 2019. Firstly, it completed the three-year initiative around closing stores (roughly 200 low-volume venues are gone). This coming year will bring a normalized closure rate of less than 1 percent of Applebee’s current base.
Dine Brands completed eight franchisee transactions over the past two years as well that represented about 170 restaurants. This portfolio evaluation resulted in the exit of “several underperforming operators while introducing new and deeply experienced franchisees to the Applebee’s system,” Cywinski said. It created growth opportunities for some existing operators, too.
The chain doesn’t look at this as a long-term play, though. As the units stabilize, Dine Brands will plot an exit strategy and seek “high-performing new franchisees that are interested in growing with us,” CEO Stephen Joyce said.
Yet the big kicker, he said, might be the fact Applebee’s has no material royalty or advertising delinquencies for the first time in three years.
“This is a significant development, one that ensures a far more stable and predictable income stream as well as a fully funded 4.25 percent marketing plan coming up here in 2020,” he said.
“These very tangible milestones bode well for our future. It means the Applebee's brand is stronger than it's been in quite some time without the constraints, challenges we've had to navigate over the past few years,” he added.