An Applebee’s franchisee channels its staff’s creativity with a competition designed to boost employee morale and community engagement.
When executives at The Rose Group, a restaurant franchise company in Newtown, Pennsylvania, noticed the staff at their 56 Applebee’s restaurants were using the restaurant’s ingredients to invent meals of their own during breaks, they decided to channel all that creativity toward a franchise-wide cooking competition.
The Top Apple Chef Competition, which is in its sixth year, is open to all staff in both the front and back of the house, though they see more cooks than servers competing. The first level takes place in each of the restaurants, where the employees and managers vote to determine which staff member will be going on to round two. These store champions go on to the district finals, where one finalist is chosen from each of the eight districts. These finalists then represent their district at the Top Apple Chef Finals Competition.
At the finals, which take place at the Newtown Applebee’s, contestants take turns cooking several plates of their creations in the kitchen and then presenting them to the judges. Family, friends, and regulars often attend to watch; once the judges have tasted the food, they share it with the spectators and other contestants. It’s like a Food Network program, minus the acerbic judges and crying contestants.
Competitors need more than a great-tasting recipe to become a Top Apple Chef. The judges interview all contestants to learn their motivation, their inspiration, and their cooking experience. Contestants also provide a worksheet with a cost breakdown and a suggested menu price, and they must be able to create the dishes within Applebee’s ticket time standard of 14 minutes. Dishes that are quick to prepare and that offer value have an advantage over slower and more expensive recipes.
In addition, contestants are required to use approved products that are already available in the restaurants—no bringing in exotic spices or unusual vegetables. This rule led to a conundrum one year when a contestant created pancake-battered french fries with amped-up ketchup, using batter from the flapjack fundraisers Applebee’s allows charities to hold in its restaurants on weekend mornings. “The fries were phenomenal,” says Jeff Warden, CEO of The Rose Group. “There was a long delay because everyone was grabbing fries and the [contestant] had to go back and make more. The question was whether that [entry] was within the rules because we don’t serve pancakes … but we do. So he went on to the next level.”
Besides the opportunity to win prizes—all finalists receive a specialty chef knife, a cash prize, and an engraved plaque—a big bonus for the staff is that they get to show off their passion and creativity, and experiment with new techniques and equipment. “We now have the new wood-fired grill, and contestants were motivated to have that to play around with,” Warden says. In fact, many of the finalists’ entries this year involved the grill, including the Butcher’s Steak Salad that nabbed the top prize for Manuel “Alex” Castelan of the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Applebee’s. The wood-fired kebabs that came in second place also made use of the new grills.