What’s going right?
Beyond the general brand drift plot line, what was really wrong with Applebee’s a couple of years ago? One major thing was the variability in execution and what that meant for customer satification. Cywinski said, when he rejoined the brand from Brinker in 2017, there was an alarming gap between Applebee’s bottom and top performers. And the drag on the entire system was significant. Not just from a sales standpoint, but also how it affected the chain’s standing in the court of pubic opinion. There weren’t a few bad restaurants here and there; there were hundreds. Deliver one bad experience in today’s flooded marketplace and you’ve likely lost the customer for good, unless you lure them back with deep discounting that stresses franchisee profitability.
At the end of fiscal 2017, Applebee’s had 1,936 restaurants (all franchised). Now, there are 1,837 (69 company run). It plans to record a net closure of another 20–30 Applebee’s in 2019.
Cywinski said the split between high and low performers “tightened dramatically” this past year through those shutterings. The chain’s percentage of guests experiencing a problem, which Applebee’s quantifies on a daily basis, shifted south to the point where it’s at about 4 percent, he said. And as this improved, Applebee’s placed a premium on guest satisfaction and value for the money, not just value for the sake of value seekers. Abundance (all-you-can eat riblets and the 3-Course Meal Deal for $11.99, for example) leading the way.
Along these same lines, Dine Brands new leadership, which revamped the executive team nearly across the board over the past two years, brought with it a heightened sense of accountability and tougher standards, Cywinski said. “We hold our franchisees accountable. And interestingly, they want to be held accountable,” he said. “They applauded the actions that we've taken over the past two years to encourage underperforming units and underperforming operators to exit the system.”