Five hours into Jake Holcomb’s shift as the manager at an Applebee’s in Lawrence, Kansas, last Monday, a co-worker came in to eat with a friend and asked him if he’d seen “the email.”
Holcomb’s colleague was referring to the now-infamous message from Wayne Pankratz, an executive at the franchise group that operates the Lawrence restaurant and dozens of others. The email, which was sent to other executives at the franchise group that operates the Applebee’s and later forwarded to the Lawrence store, portrayed high gas prices and inflation as an opportunity for the company to rebuild its workforce and pay lower wages.
“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck,” Pankratz wrote in the March 9 email. “Any increase in gas prices cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living.”
“The labor market is about to turn in our favor,” the email continued.
When Holcomb read the note, he quit on the spot. Before he left, however, he printed out about two dozen stacks of the email, showed them to his co-workers, and put them up all over the store—on the tables, the bar tops, the host stand, the doors, even the computer terminals.
“I gave everyone in the restaurant their food for free. We didn’t even close the store,” Holcomb, 23, told VICE News.
In the week since the email was sent, a mass exodus has happened at the restaurant. Four out of six managers and at least 10 other workers either quit on the spot or handed in their notices, according to workers. The tone-deaf message, screenshots of which were later posted to Reddit, was the breaking point for some workers. They told VICE News they’ve been underpaid, overworked, and mistreated by their company during a time of unprecedented stress in the service industry.
“This was kind of a straw that broke the camel’s back situation where everyone was feeling unappreciated [and] we were understaffed," said Adrian Kelley, a 22-year-old bartender and server at the Lawrence Applebee’s, who quit Monday. “And then this email was so atrocious that it kind of just tipped everyone over the edge.”
When Jenna Willis, 23, arrived at the restaurant the morning after Holcomb’s shift and read the emails, she also decided to quit.
“Oh my gosh, I was so mad,” the former Applebee’s manager told VICE News. “I let the staff that showed up to open that morning read it, and they were livid. So I told them if we wanted to make money, we would open, but I didn’t really feel like we should at that point.”
The staff agreed, and the store shut down for several hours.
“How can we continue to work for a company that doesn’t care about us?” Willis said.
Both Applebee's and American Franchise (AFC) Brands, which owns the Lawrence franchise, have distanced themselves from Pankratz’s email.
Scott Fischer, a spokesperson for AFC Brands and Apple Central LLC, the subsidiary operating the Lawrence restaurant, told the Kansas City Star and Lawrence Journal-World that the email was “embarrassing.” Applebee’s chief operations officer Kevin Carroll said in a statement provided to VICE News that Pankratz’s email was “the opinion of an individual, not Applebee’s.”
On Monday, Applebee’s corporate office confirmed to VICE News that Pankratz had been “terminated.”
“Our team members are the lifeblood of our restaurants, and our franchisees are always looking to reward and incentivize team members, new and current, to remain within the Applebee’s family,” Carroll said.
An email and phone call to Pankratz went unreturned, as did emails to the company’s area director and its regional vice president, both of whom were cc’d on the original email.
Overworked and low-paid
Like other restaurant chains around the country operating during the pandemic, Applebee’s has struggled to hire employees, many of whom left the service industry entirely for more stable and less demanding work. More than 10 percent of jobs in accommodations and food services were open in January, compared to only 7 percent of all positions in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data,
Last May, Applebee’s even hosted a “national hiring day” to try to bring on 10,000 new employees across the U.S. The company promised potential candidates a voucher for a free appetizer once they completed an interview. But the promise of a few free mozzarella sticks didn’t make much of a dent in the shortage.
Kelley started working as a bartender and server at Applebee’s last month. “Honestly, with our turnover rate,” Kelley said with a laugh, “that’s a pretty solid timeline.”
Sometimes, Kelley said, the bartender is the only person at the restaurant aside from the chefs and the manager. “Some days, that’s fine. But it’s a college town,” Kelley told VICE News. “It can get kind of busy out of nowhere. There were some days that we had servers who were very stressed about it.”
Willis would do four interviews a day and hire most of the people she spoke with, she said, but that wasn’t enough to solve the shortage either. “We wouldn't get anybody to actually show up to the store after being hired,” Willis said.
When Jonah Wirginis began working at the store six months ago, it was trial by fire.
"My first day that I bartended at Applebee's was because I showed up in the morning and the bartender didn't show up, and my manager is like, 'Hey, you're on bars today,'" Wirginis, who had no experience making cocktails prior to working at Applebee’s, told VICE News.
The reason for the understaffing was fairly simple: Employees weren’t making enough money. Prior to the pandemic, Willis said servers could expect to make $100 to $150 per night. “Now, post-COVID, it’s like $60,” she told VICE News.
One day, Wirginis recalled, he worked a double shift, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., because another bartender didn’t show up. “That day I did the best. I made about $250,” Wirginis recalled. “But it was a long day, and for how much?”
Managers weren’t much better off. Willis worked for a year and a half as a salaried manager, making $40,000 a year. But she often worked 60 hours a week at the restaurant. “I took home work with me too,” she added.
In January, she took a full-time job somewhere else and has since reduced her role to an hourly manager working two days a week at the restaurant.
The employees’ prior experience with the higher-ups didn’t help matters much either. Willis recalled an interview she’d had with Pankratz last year when she was up for a promotion.
“That man is something else of himself,” she said of Pankratz. “He would ask me a question and then he wouldn’t even give me an opportunity to actually answer it before he was already answering it and explaining it to me, as if I didn’t understand it from the beginning.”
“You could just tell [Pankratz] didn’t care about the employees,” Holcomb said, attributing his perception to Pankratz’s “overall demeanor.” Of the email, Willis said: “I would have expected that from him.”
Fischer, the spokesperson for AFC Brands, told the Kansas City Star that Pankratz “doesn’t have the authority to create policy for our company for the brand or anything.” Both Willis and Holcomb, however, said that Pankratz had much more power than the company suggested.
“The other people at the company take what [Pankratz] says very seriously and kind of blindly support him,” Willis said.
Fischer also suggested to the Star that the email may have been written “in the middle of the night.” A copy of the email obtained by VICE News shows the timestamp on Pankratz’s March 9 email as 3:52 p.m. local time.
“How can we continue to work for a company that doesn’t care about us?”
Pankratz’s email wasn’t the first time the company has drawn national scrutiny: In 2018, after an incident at an Apple Central-owned restaurant in Missouri where two Black diners were racially profiled, Apple Central shut down that location and six others in Missouri and Kansas.
Applebee’s later sued Apple Central’s principal shareholder, William Georgas, for $11 million, alleging failure to pay rent and other fees and “significant brand and reputational damage” as a result of the incident. Applebee’s voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit a few months later, according to court records. Applebee’s did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Doing ‘damage control’
On March 22, after the Lawrence store had been shut down for hours, two area directors from AFC Brands came to the store to do what multiple employees described as “damage control” with the workers who were left.
"We talked to them for a few hours, and they made many promises about things they're gonna change," Wirginis said. "Things have not changed yet, so I have not gone back. I don't actually expect them to make any changes.”
It hasn’t worked. Three people quit on Monday alone—a worker walked out in the middle of a shift and Kelley and another employee put in their notices in “solidarity,” Kelley said.
“I believe that management is waiting for the issue to fade away rather than take the opportunity to fix all of the problems it’s facing, so I don’t see a reason to stick around,” he said.
One silver lining of the fallout for restaurant’s workers has been sticking together in their response to the email. “The employees and the managers have been pretty tight on this issue. We were all kind of united about it,” Kelley said. “There’s a lot of support for each other. That’s been really good.”
The public backlash has been swift and widespread, too. Willis shared the email in a local Lawrence Facebook group, while Holcomb’s friend posted screenshots on the subreddit r/antiwork. That post has received more than 75,000 upvotes and 5,200 comments as of Tuesday.
“And just like that, I never ate at Applebee’s again,” one comment on the Reddit post said.
Holcomb said he hopes people in similar situations take note of the response and support that Applebee’s workers who quit have received from people in Lawrence and across the country. Holcomb said that he was even offered a job after he did a radio interview about the email.
“I really hope that more and more people see what’s happening and see the support that the community has given everybody that chose to leave,” Holcomb said. “I hope that people realize they don’t have to be walked all over by the company that they work for.”
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