After spending roughly five years closing about 300 underperforming restaurants, Applebee’s is projected to fall just short of U.S. net unit growth in 2022, but reach the mark in 2023. It plans to open six traditional locations and six ghost kitchens this year and close fewer than 15 stores—its lowest number of shutters in 10 years.
Applebee’s ended the first quarter with 1,575 U.S. restaurants.
In preparation for this rise in development, Applebee’s has spent the better part of two years developing a new prototype. Cywinski describes it as a cost-engineered, modernized store design that’s not radically different from what’s seen today—there’ll still be the classic tower, the bar will remain the centerpiece, and the square footage will be roughly the same.
A handful of recently opened restaurants feature some, but not all of the components. In these stores, guests of all ages have validated the improvements, Cywinski says. Locations with all changes should pop up toward the end of 2022, and certainly in 2023.
“We haven't compromised anything on the guest front in terms of design, décor, size,” the brand president says. “We've just optimized a few areas back of house, kitchen, front of house, dining room—just some measures that some really smart designers and architects helped us with to make this even more efficient, and that's probably the word I would use. It's a more efficient prototype. It looks great for the guest. It'll just operate even more efficiently for our franchise partners.”
Cywinski hopes a good portion of Applebee’s future growth will include drive-thru pickup windows, in lieu of carside pickup. There are four converted locations in Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia. The new asset, which costs roughly $100,000 to $250,000 depending on market, allows stores to offer off-premises later into the night and protects employees from unfavorable weather. There should be 15 drive-thru pickup windows built by the end of the fiscal year.
Cywinski isn’t sure how many conversions would be possible among the nearly 1,600-unit footprint, but he prefers it be at least half, if municipalities allow for it. He’d also love for new prototypes to have the drive-thru window, too.
“If 5 percent of my business was off-premise, I don't think I’d have a keen interest in doing this,” Cywinski says. “With 28 percent of my business being off-premise and then that's a $1.2 billion brand in effect. That's larger than some of my smaller competitors in total. It's meaningful, and we're not just in the off-premise business to compete. We're in it to win, and we want to really provide a great experience for our guests. So the easier we can make it for our guests and our team members, the better, and that's our mission.”
This is Cywinski’s second stint at Applebee’s. For five years in the early 2000s, he worked as chief marketing officer, and at that time, he said the company was building 100 restaurants per year and comp sales were “off the charts.” Many, including himself, refer to those times as the glory years.
With a fully optimized portfolio and customers eager to dine out, Cywinski is confident Applebee’s has recaptured that magic.
“We're very bullish on the future,” he says. "The brand couldn't be better-positioned, and I'm excited for what that means for our franchise partners.”