About two years ago, I wrote a blog about the disappointing state of fast-casual restaurants. Reacting to the downturn in dining out during the recession, many of them sacrificed quality to keep prices more affordable for the penny-pinching public.
The problem occurred when the economy turned around for the better. Instead of concentrating on better quality food, some of the chains began trying to lure people with volume, offering all-you-can-eat appetizer or pasta specials.
The food was still all the same, and it was mostly pre-made off-site and reheated in the restaurant – blah.
“We were in a sea of sameness,” said Cathi Chuck, vice president of marketing for the Rose Group, which owns 56 Applebee’s franchises in eastern Pennsylvania and the Baltimore, Md., area.
People didn’t want to pay for microwaved appetizers, even if there were a lot of them and even if they were a good price.
Something had to change, I said at the time. And now it looks like something might be changing, and changing big.
Applebee’s just announced a nationwide initiative, which it began quietly rolling out late in the third quarter 2015.
With a slogan “Does this look like a microwave to you?” Applebee’s has invested $75 million in equipment, training and advertising to introduce its new wood-fired grills, which replace the gas grills the 2,000 Applebee’s restaurants across the nation had been using – and which are standard in the fast-casual industry.
“It’s really about differentiating ourselves,” Chuck said.
Applebee’s wants to give the consumers a good reason to choose it over the competition, and more importantly try a new dish that might get them hooked on the new menu.
To be sure, it’s a bold move. The chain’s restaurants spent about $40 million alone on the grills. Divide that by 2,000 restaurants and it’s about a $20,000 investment per restaurant – and an outlay of more than $1.1 million for the Rose Group.
That’s a lot of money to spend on something that might not work.
The wood grilling will make all of the restaurants’ grilled items taste differently. And while that difference might be better, will it hit existing favorites that aren’t the same as they used to be, and will a bolder and arguably better flavor be enough to lure in the masses?
Chuck said she and the company are confident in the plan; in fact, she said, even restaurant employees are excited for the rollout of the new menu.
“This has been thoroughly vetted,” she said.
She noted that some of the Rose Group’s Pocono-area Applebee’s were among the first to try the new wood grills, and she said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People liked the flavor, she said.
She said the big push now is in marketing the new wood-fired grill menu as new and different and good enough to visit and try.
“We’re confident that if we can get people to come in, we can build on that and be a success,” Chuck said.
That’s why marketing is so important, she said. And it’s likely why the restaurant chain is spending nearly as much on advertising, training and newer, higher-quality food than it did on equipment.
Not only has the national restaurant chain launched a new ad campaign, it’s trained its front and back of house staff in how to best prepare, present and promote the new menu items to make them most appealing.
And if the ads don’t get the public excited, she hopes the smell will.
She said the smell of the burning American oak and grilling steak in the parking lot surrounding the restaurants is sure to be enough to lure in undecided hungry patrons.
Online reviews of the new menu have been mixed, with some praise for the new flavors and options, and some wondering if it’s a big-enough change for the amount of the investment.
I have yet to try it, so I can’t add my opinion to the pot.
But change is good, and I hope it works for Applebee’s. And that more of the chains follow suit and try to reinvent themselves as distinctive destinations worth trying again.