Bad news: The brands have seen your tweets and they’re cashing in on your existential dread.
Maybe you’re stressed the fuck out that we’re maybe less than two decades away from a major climate crisis, or maybe it’s that a whole generation of us is drowning in student debt that makes the prospect of home ownership or even living without roommates entirely impossible, or maybe it’s the President’s casual racism. In any case, Applebee’s knows your anxieties—in fact, it’s banking on them.
While it’s old news for fast food brands to take to social media with their own nihilist takes, all ready for meme posterity, Applebee’s is building the anxieties of the age into brand strategy, selling food and drink that’s specifically targeted at dulling the pain of our current existence. Emphasizing value is important, sure, but as Applebee’s president John Cywinski told CNN, even more key, is honing in on Americans’ current climate of stress.
Positioning itself as an answer to those stresses, Applebee’s is relying on the old standbys of comfort food and alcohol, however misguided that may be. Unlike some chains that might be tending toward trimmed-down ingredients lists, Applebee’s is forgoing the facade of healthiness and doubling down on the idea that we want to eat our feelings.
As Cywinski told CNN, “When stressed, [Americans] tend to go to comfort food ... and we're pretty darn good at comfort food.” As it goes, Applebee’s Instagram now rivals Olive Garden’s in terms of number of cheesy pasta posts.
According to Applebee's official report, the chain—which, in 2017, closed over 100 locations nationwide, stating that they were “focusing on operations and elevating the guest experience” —has seen a record-breaking sales increase in the third quarter of this year. With a same-restaurant sales increase of 7.7%, that’s the most the chain has seen in fourteen years. For comparison here, IHOP, which is also owned by Dine Brands, saw only a 1.2% same-restaurant sales increase in the same time period.
Also integral to Applebee’s revitalization has been a reliance on the idea that drinking begets less stress. While diners might order drinks with dinner, a slew of drink promotions, from $1 Bahama Mamas or Long Island Iced Teas to $2 vodka lemonades or Bud Light on draft, have set the chain as a destination for drinkers on a budget. Alcohol, according to CNN, now accounts for 15% of Applebee’s business.
As CNN reports, Cywinski points out that most Americans live within driving distance from an Applebee’s and he adds later that pursuing “niche trends” isn’t a goal going forward—which is to say, this is not necessarily a ploy for the millennial market, but the everyman.
While millennials might be the most anxious generation, according to a 2018 poll by the American Psychiatric Association, Gen Xers and baby boomers alike report increasing amounts of anxiety. While the specifics of our situations differ, across generational lines, we’re stressed about the same things: health, safety, finances, relationships, politics. Applebee’s is just betting that, at the heart of it, a tray of nachos will make most of us feel better.
If the prospect of the family table seems stressful for holiday season, well, maybe you’ll find yourself at Applebee’s instead, guzzling down a brightly-colored dollar drink and tearing apart your sorrows by way of the app sampler platter. At least, that’s what they’re hoping.