Tom Linafelt is a big, happy dude.
Linafelt's a chatty, 6-foot-something former entertainment reporter with thick-rimmed glasses and a jawline somewhere between Ray Liotta and Al Franken. As the senior corporate communications manager for DineEquity, he's at the Applebee's in Dinkytown showing off his company's Millennial-focused rebrand.
He is the Sisyphus of this story.
"The casual dining segment has become one undifferentiated mass of mediocrity," Linafelt says. "Our brand mission is to become America's first-choice bar and grill. To do that, we needed to change."
"Change" is a central term to Applebee's reinvigoration campaign, which will officially launch Tuesday, July 21, with a largest-ever food giveaway. All 2,000+ restaurants across the country will participate in the Taste the Change event, wherein they'll give away sample sizes of Sriracha Shrimp and Churro S'mores — the two dishes chosen as heralds of Applebee's emboldened new menu.
This comes on the heels of a freshness-first campaign that emphasized quinoa, kale, and whole grains, a wholesale departure from the iconic casual dining joint's historical aesthetic. Over its 35-year existence, Applebee's has built itself up as something of a culinary dripping pan, congealing semblances of barbecue, steakhouse classics, pasta, and Tex-Mex into a conversely unappealing mishmash. To put it plainly, there's nothing cool about a restaurant that panders so readily. Linafelt knows that.
"We were trying to be everything to everybody," he says. "That's how you end up with a 100-page menu."
But still, Applebee's is an immensely popular destination for American families. The chain sells more steak nationwide than any other restaurant in America, and franchisees are hesitant to let cornerstone apps like Queso Blanco go in favor of reaching for a generation as fickle as Millennials. Linafelt says the new direction is focused on enticing "lapsed" customers who've given up on Applebee's faded star, and the change of pace is bound to alienate some regulars.
"It's hard to turn a big ship around," Linafelt says, frankly.
The sheer size of the Applebee's empire means that decisions get seen by countless executives and consultants, making the turnaround sluggish. How can a brand that's 2,000-locations deep with a rigid corporate structure stay absolutely relevant? It can't.
Aside from "change," a term seven years past its effective date, Applebee's is leaning hard on some already-ran buzzwords to reinvigorate their cuisine. Take the Sriracha Shrimp, whose saucy co-sign is losing its wow factor every day, or the Philly cheesesteak made with beer cheese and onion straws on a ciabatta roll (lead image), the smashed burgers on pretzel buns, and the brisket nachos. It almost feels like a disappointment when you find out the Churro S'mores aren't served with Nutella.
Applebee's doesn't think it's fooling you by pretending it's not the last ship to port, it's just trying to negotiate being a monolith. Linafelt and his team are being as deft as their berth allows. Sometimes that means co-opting an authentic Mexican recipe into a a successful (albeit overly sweet) signature dessert. Other times that means settling for spokesman Jason DeRulo. Being Applebee's was never cool, but the only thing Linafelt can do to try to change that is get you in the door with free shrimp.
The new menu won't blow you away. The revitalized bar menu (centered on, you guessed it, mixology, due in August) is a good start, but the food is nothing you wouldn't expect from the Applebee's kitchen. The aforementioned cheesesteak is okay, though it tastes more like roast beef than Gino's or Pat's. The maple bacon chicken piadini is strangely chalky with unidentifiable spice, but it'll fill you up if you're not in the mood for red meat. The Sriracha Shrimp are great, easily edible appetizers — well worth the trip to Applebee's this Tuesday for a sample — but they don't quite make Applebee's a destination.
Perhaps the perfect metaphor for the chain's transformation is the Triple Hog Dare Ya — a preposterous artery clogger loaded with tiers of black forest ham, pulled pork, and thick-cut bacon steeped in barbecue sauce. It's a sloppy marriage between Old Applebee's and New Applebee's that affirms how the company's broad appeal leaves it shackled to half measures.
Linafelt is a talker. He is very good at his job, which is to be the keeper of the Applebee's Gospel. His excitement is contagious. He bellows on jovially about how he eats at Applebee's regularly with his family, his one son always opting for the pretzel bites for his appetizer. It sounds nice.
Linafelt is impressively candid throughout the evening. He's a man who is challenged to market cheap, syndicated meals to the most cynical, over-marketed generation in Earth's history. He knows that armchair epicureans are out there right now firing off Tweets about how Sriracha is "so 2013" and churros have gone the way of the cupcake. But all he can do is push his tanker along, making up whatever ground he can.
"We think folks don't think we make good food," he says. "So, we made it even better."
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