The line between fast food and “casual dining” continues to blur and may not exist for much longer. In an effort to compete with fast-food chains, Applebee has announced that it will add drive-thru windows to at least 15 of its locations by the end of the year. If that sounds like a death knell for Applebee’s reputation as a sit-down restaurant, it’s probably because it is.
Like so many other changes in the restaurant world over the past three years, the plan to install more drive-thrus is, of course, the result of the pandemic. As CNN Business reports, Applebee has seen a massive increase in takeout and delivery orders over the past two years – a 27% increase – even after restaurants that temporarily closed their dining rooms were allowed to reopen. The company will start with a limited trial of those 15 restaurants, and if that proves profitable, it’s possible that all of the chain’s more than 1,600 restaurants will end up with drive-thru. Notably, however, this is more of a pickup window than a traditional drive-thru. Customers will still need to place their orders in advance, either through Applebee’s website or through its smartphone app.
It’s a decision that honestly makes sense, even if it makes Applebee’s future look increasingly bleak. Just a few years ago, economists were wringing their hands over which industries millennials were “murdering.” People in my age group have been blamed for the disappearance of everything from cable TV to golf to, you guessed it, chain restaurants. The main argument for hip millennials who never wanted to set foot in an Applebee again was quite simple: the food was terrible. No matter how many of those $1 Long Island iced teas you drank, nothing changed the fact that Applebee’s menu—and his food preparation methods, which often involved the use of a microwave — were decidedly stuck in the past.
In the 15 years since my brief tenure as the chain’s hostess, the food at Applebee hasn’t changed significantly. There have been minor changes to the menu, sure, but the arguably offensively-named Oriental Chicken Salad is still there, as is the same old Fiesta Lime Chicken I used to butcher between shifts. of work. It’s not the kind of food that was designed for portability behind the wheel, and it certainly doesn’t do well under a heat lamp – or take-out container – for long periods of time. By adding drive-thru and making it more like the fast-food experience, the hope is that diners won’t care as much about their Whiskey Bacon Burger bun being store-bought and somehow expired. In fact, they will expect it.
But whether or not someone chooses Applebee’s drive-thru over other fast-food chains is another matter. The price at Applebee’s is higher, and the food doesn’t seem noticeably better than, say, getting a double-double at In-N-Out. Countless other establishments have been selling drive-thru chicken tenders, burgers and even salads for years, and there’s no reason to assume that Applebee would be able to do it any better than Popeyes or McDonald’s, whose menus are meticulously designed. to eat on the go. And brands like Taco Bell have avoided the millennial death curse by creating unique cultural cachet: partnering with cool celebrities for merchandising collaborations and secret menus, and appealing to younger consumers with rewards programs based on apps. Applebee has yet to announce an NFT collaboration with the guy who wrote that awful song on a chain party, but that really seems to be the vibe Applebee is hoping to tap into.
Even though the chain is betting big on the assumption that it can replicate some of the success of fast food, it seems odd to think it’s a safe bet. Perhaps in places where dining options are limited and Applebee is a legitimate part of the weekly restaurant rotation, the idea makes more sense. But mostly, it looks like Applebee is admitting defeat to the unparalleled power of millennial food snobbery and finally admitting it’s nothing more than a fast-food chain.