Applebee's burger and wings.

For the next four weeks, Applebee’s will give customers a free Fandango movie ticket to see Top Gun: Maverick when they spend $25 or more in one transaction at Applebee’s (two if they spend $50-plus).

The Dinner and a Movie Occasion is Back at Applebee’s

The casual brand is teaming with Top Gun: Maverick as it continues to welcome guests back.

Applebee’s posted its fifth consecutive quarter of positive momentum to get 2021 started, with same-store sales climbing 14.3 percent, year-over-year. In fact, March, at average weekly sales of $57,600, marked the casual chain’s best-performing month since it entered the Dine Brands’ (formerly known as DineEquity) family in 2007. That annualized AUV of $3 million was well ahead of 2019’s $2.43 million.

The culprit is a familiar story at this turn of the COVID tale. Business outside Applebee’s four walls amounted to $1.2 billion last year and mixed 28 percent of sales in Q1 2022. In 2019, off-premises figured roughly 10–15 percent.

Meanwhile, Applebee’s dine-in hit 90 percent of pre-pandemic results—a number that should only rise as late-night business picks up and older consumers return to restaurants.

Although dine-in will naturally pull off-premises mix back a bit, it’s unlikely to ever slide to previous norms. Close to 30 percent of Applebee’s off-premises in Q1 split evenly between carside pickup and delivery. And 70 percent of carside orders flowed via digital—a process that includes online platforms and a call center that’s used by more than half of Applebee’s system. The chain wants to reach 100 percent digital ordering by year-end 2022 (full call-out center rollout included). Guests who tap online ordering platforms or use the call center are generating higher checks than those who dial up.

Also, Applebee’s is in the process of finishing 2022 with 15 drive-thru pickup windows.

So the one-two opportunity at hand is one Applebee’s is actively courting; taking opened digital accessibility and leveraging a new audience into more off-premises business; while also leaning its dine-in DNA.

This reality hasn’t been lost on marketing. On Monday, the company announced an activation with Paramount Pictures film “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opens in theaters May 27.

For the next four weeks, Applebee’s will give customers a free Fandango movie ticket when they spend $25 or more in one transaction at Applebee’s (two if they spend $50-plus). And the offer extends to guests eating in-store as well as ordering to-go or delivery through Applebee’s website or mobile app.

FSR caught up with CMO Joel Yashinsky to discuss the campaign, what customers should expect to see, and how the message fits into a broader movement taking place at Applebee’s as the summer approaches.

Let’s start with the inspiration behind the collaboration. Why was Top Gun a fit?

It is a summer blockbuster that is meant to be seen in the theater, and we believe with everything taking place in the world today and getting a better handle on the pandemic, the timing is ideal. We found last year, when we started to come out of some of the surges of the pandemic, there was a deep desire to go to restaurants, and to come back to restaurants and have that restaurant experience

Applebee's/Top Gun: Maverick

Applebee’s has always been about dinner and a movie, or date night and a movie. This is really the ultimate type of combination for us in terms of working with Paramount; working with Tom Cruise and the Top Gun franchise in this sequel. Having the chance to see it, it’s phenomenal. We think it’s going to be a blockbuster hit for the summer and our ability to tie in and provide people with the chance to get a free ticket, or two, with a visit to Applebee’s is something we’re really excited to provide for our guests. We think it’s a natural combination for how our guests tend to combine dinner and a movie at Applebee’s.

Talk about the extension of the promotion to to-go and delivery, and how Applebee’s connected those pieces.

Our business model has shifted with the impact from the pandemic in a way that we now value our off-premises guest just as much as our guest who wants to come in and enjoy the restaurant experience. While we continue to get back toward the levels of the pre-pandemic in our restaurants, we have grown our off-premises business in a significant manner.

So making sure that we can provide the value and the engagement with Applebee’s—a program like this is natural for us to be able to provide it both in our restaurants and to-go and through delivery. We’re excited that all of our guests can have a great opportunity to go see the movie and help us let them connect that opportunity for them. We’re making it possible for folks using our restaurants however they see fit. That’s something we want to make sure we continue to do moving forward.

Walk us through some of the elements of the campaign.

It’s a full engagement. It’s really that restaurant experience from when you walk up to the restaurant in the parking lot and you see the window clings that will tell the story about the movie and the offer in our restaurants. Then, walking in the restaurants and seeing the larger-than-life-size standee of Tom in full gear and people having the opportunity to take pictures with him, and have some fun engaging in a way that we saw when we worked with Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson last summer. That’s something our guests enjoy doing. We also have coasters and menu inserts that provide some QR codes where you can do movie trivia and learn more about the movie and see trailers.

We’ve made the whole experience holistic in terms of being able to connect to Top Gun. We have a QR code where people can generate their own call sign. There’s a lot of fun activities that are tied to the movie that will be available in restaurants that we’re excited to provide and bring the whole summer blockbuster feel to Applebee’s in a way that’s going to be a lot of fun for our guests.

It feels as though Applebee’s has really tried to get into the pop culture conversation in recent years. Of course, we all know about the “date night” song from Walker Hayes. From your broader perspective as CMO, how are consumers relating Applebee’s to their lives again?

It’s a great question, and it’s an important insight. We do consider ourselves an American brand that is in touch with what is taking place in today’s world and what guests are looking for. They’re looking for that escape. They’re looking for that opportunity to get back to normal. I think we’ve been a part of that. When the pandemic struck, we were really focused on the operations and cleanliness and off-premises business and being able to connect with guests that way. We evolved that to getting back to that restaurant experience, making people feel comfortable with all the cleanliness aspects, and QR code menus. Then, bringing people back out and helping them feel comfortable again; bringing that realization of a restaurant experience to life.

And then we had Walker Hayes and being a part of what people were looking for in terms of something fun; and escape from everything that had been going on and continuing to do that with Dwayne Johnson and our partnership with his Teremana tequila. With Top Gun coming out this year, we’ve tried to stay in-step with what America is looking for. That’s what we’re going to continue to do, paced at the right pace based on everything that’s going on in the world today.

That’s important to us, and something we try to make sure we’re connected to in understanding what guests are looking for—at the right level and at the right pace. That’s why we really think the tie-in to this movie makes so much sense because we do believe this is going to be the movie that brings people back to the theaters in a big way. It’s a theatrical experience. You want to see the jet engines and see the amazing footage of the jets they have in this movie. You want to see it on the big screen and hear it with Dolby sound. You want to feel that in your soul after you’ve enjoyed a great meal or before you go for a late-night drink at Applebee’s.

How does this campaign dovetail with some other Applebee’s spots earlier in the year, like “The Regulars?” It seems like there’s an overarching idea at work of welcoming people back.

One hundred percent. Our hope is that whether they’re teenagers or people who have just had a baby and are looking for a night out and want to go to Applebee’s and a movie, they can come enjoy a great meal at Applebee’s and get a free ticket to Top Gun. Or whether it’s folks who are a little bit older like myself who remember going on a date to Top Gun, now taking my wife and kids to go see it. It’s tied in to what I think people are looking for this summer—and that’s what we’re excited about.

We think it’s a perfect combination, to be working with a blockbuster movie like Top Gun: Maverick and bringing that to our guests who are looking for that additional connection and escape from the everyday part of life in a way that’s fun and enjoyable. That’s what we try to do with each and every thing on our marketing plan.

We just are really thrilled about that momentum we built from last summer with our “Welcome Back” work to “Fancy Like” and then “The Regulars,” as you mentioned. It’s really all about what Applebee’s is there for in terms of providing their local neighborhood with that type of experience.

More generally speaking, does this kind of promotion and the idea of a dinner and movie at a casual restaurant, just point to where the consumers’ mindset might be headed as summer approaches, especially in regard to spontaneous occasions returning?

It does. What we’re hearing from guests is they want it easy, they want it natural, they want it comfortable. They want it in the way that Applebee’s provides it. And that’s what we’re ready for in terms of our brand’s place in the world today. We’re there to make life a little bit easier for everyone. We’re there to be a comfortable and easy stop on your way to go see a movie, or finishing up from a day of shopping. That is the simplicity of what we are about—doing it in a way with food that tastes great, with a cold beer, or an ice-cold drink of some sort. And then just having a nice, comfortable experience that doesn’t take a lot of thought but provides for people to have an escape that makes their day or week a little bit brighter.

Top Gun: Maverick is pure fun. The story and the characters are entertaining and whether you’ve seen the first one or not, it’s a really great summer movie. I say that with all sincerity. It’s terrific.

We’re just eager to be back in the dinner-and-movie timeframe. For what America is looking for, I think this is a natural fit that people are going to be able to enjoy a great meal at Applebee’s and a great movie with Top Gun: Maverick and we’re looking forward to bringing this alive in our restaurants in a way that is both creative and fun and engaging, and a little bit different than what people have seen in the past.