Applebee's SVP of operations weighs in on the challenges and opportunities facing the casual-dining segment.

Innovation, originality, transformation…these are all familiar terms you read in many a business strategy. But they aren’t always words associated with the casual-dining industry. The segment has been associated with many admirable attributes: quality, experience, great service, good times, fun, and celebration. Indeed, at Applebee’s, our focus has always been—and remains—on serving good food to families across the United States and beyond. But we also fully recognize that we can’t stand still, and we can’t rest on our laurels. We know that we have to move forward and drive change in order to meet the new and ever-changing expectations of guests visiting our 2,000 restaurants, making meal-time decisions within a growing competitive landscape.

In order to thrive in this new landscape—between demographic shifts, new rivals, and technological developments—businesses of all shapes and sizes need to be front-footed and differentiated from competitors. Nowhere is this truer than in the crowded full-service restaurant space. We simply have to move faster, think bigger, and act differently.

Throughout my career in the service industry, I’ve been regularly challenged with coming up with new ways of thinking, doing, and acting. In an operations role, that means partnering with others on the journey—whether they're colleagues or our team of dedicated franchisees.

I see three key opportunities for true differentiation on which I believe our segment should focus:

1. Food, Food, Food

    Food is everything. It underpins our industry and should be the element that drives loyalty and ensures guests return time and again. Bringing new, exciting menu items to market which appeal to a range of dining tastes and occasions, and making sure those dishes use interesting, quality ingredients and cooking styles, is what lies at the heart of a good innovative culinary strategy. It’s not always about trying to use the newest and most original style of cooking, but keeping things fresh, while maintaining quality at all times. At Applebee’s, for instance, our classic bar-and-grill menu items—using higher-quality ingredients and premium preparation techniques—remain at the core of what we serve. Today, we are building upon this heritage and further differentiating Applebee's to maintain the brand's position at the top of the casual-dining segment.

    New innovations from last year include The Pub Diet (bar and grill classics made better for you), a reinvention of the appetizer line, and All-In Burgers®, in which premium ingredients are sealed into, and placed atop, a fresh ground beef patty. We’ll be taking our food innovation even further in 2016 with exciting new platforms for guests.

    2. Experience and Environment

      Serving more than 300 million guests a year and creating an environment at Applebee’s restaurants that those diners can enjoy is at our core. Over the last five years, virtually the entire Applebee’s system has been given a facelift. Our restaurants are more contemporary, fresh, and attractive for our guests, and we are building on this even further through new prototype building designs that will simplify, modernize, and revitalize the environment our guests experience.

      Our major bar revitalization project is designed to modernize and evolve Applebee’s bar offering, focused around people, products, and innovation. Looking first at our people, we have developed a custom training program for all bar staff to ensure consistency and quality of service across all restaurants and to ensure that our guests know they will get quick, experienced service in an inviting atmosphere. Quality of bar products is of great importance to us, and our focus is on real, fresh, natural ingredients. We are diversifying our alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to appeal to new guests who want a modern range, without alienating our core consumer. This includes new, on-trend drinks, a wider range of beers—including hyper-local craft beers, national crafts, as well as classic favorites—and a bigger wine range, featuring higher-quality wines and an expanded wines-by-the-glass offering. We test continually and update our beverage menus approximately four to five times per year, bringing in new products such as teas, frozen drinks, and lemonades, as well as alcoholic beverages.

      3. Keeping Ahead with Technology

        Today, the restaurant experience goes well beyond food, service, and environment; technology is playing a bigger role in the overall experience. It’s crucial to realize that today’s guest is more technologically savvy than ever before—and their needs and desires must be at the center of all our decisions and strategies. Our solution to this at Applebee’s? We’ve focused not on technology for technology’s sake, but on tools and innovations that will genuinely improve our guests’ experience and drive loyalty from them, as well as their friends and family.

        Our guests are increasingly looking for convenience, speed of service, and choice based on their specific needs, with functionality such as group ordering, user-friendly payment options, and opportunities to improve the visit experience via social media sites.

        Linked to this, control over experience is something that is becoming important for guests. They want to be able to order when they are ready to do so, ask for extras at any point, and pay when they want to pay. Tabletop devices, such as the ones we’ve introduced at Applebee’s, will help with that process.


        Over the last two years, we’ve engaged in the most comprehensive research in Applebee’s history. It’s our absolute intention to employ the insights we’ve gained to innovate and differentiate to constantly improve the guest experience and challenge ourselves to be nimble, quick and proactive. And although these aren’t attributes always associated with casual dining, and might make for a challenging road ahead, they are ones I look forward to achieving, along with a talented team of colleagues.

        The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

        Expert Takes, Feature, Applebee's