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’s 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, that’s because it probably is.
Like so many other shifts in the world of dining in the past three years, the plan to install more drive-thrus is, of course, a result of the pandemic. As CNN Business reports, Applebee’s saw a massive uptick in takeout and delivery orders over the past two years — a 27 percent increase — even after restaurants that temporarily closed their dining rooms were allowed to reopen. The company will start off with a limited test run of those 15 restaurants, and if it proves profitable, it’s possible that all of the chain’s more than 1,600 restaurants could end up with a drive-thru. Notably, though, it’s more of a pick-up window than a traditional drive-thru. Patrons will still have to place their orders in advance, either via the Applebee’s website or its smartphone app.
It’s a move that honestly makes sense, even if it does make the future of Applebee’s seem ever more bleak. Just a few years ago, economists were wringing their hands over the industries that millennials were “murdering.” Folks in my age group were blamed for the demise of everything from cable TV to golf to, you guessed it, chain restaurants. The chief argument from hip millennials who never wanted to set foot in an Applebee’s ever again was pretty simple: the food was terrible. No matter how many of those $1 Long Island iced teas you drank, there was no changing the fact that Applebee’s menu — and its food preparation methods, which often involved the use of a microwave — were decidedly stuck in the past.
In the 15 years following my brief tenure as a hostess at the chain, the food at Applebee’s has not meaningfully changed. There have been minor shifts to the menu, sure, but the arguably offensively named Oriental Chicken Salad is still around, as is the same old Fiesta Lime Chicken that I used to scarf down in between shifts. This isn’t the kind of food that’s been designed for drive-thru portability, and it certainly doesn’t do well sitting under a heat lamp — or a to-go container — for long periods of time. By adding drive-thrus and more closely resembling the fast-food experience, the hope is that diners won’t care as much about the fact that the bun on their Whisky Bacon Burger is store-bought and sort of stale. In fact, they’ll expect it.
But whether or not anyone will actually choose the Applebee’s drive-thru over other fast-food chains is another question altogether. The price point at Applebee’s is higher, and the food just doesn’t seem markedly better than, say, getting a double-double at In-N-Out. Countless other establishments have been selling chicken tenders, burgers, and even salads out of a drive-thru window for years, and there’s no reason to assume that Applebee’s would be able to do that any better than Popeyes or McDonald’s, whose menus are painstakingly designed to be eaten to-go. And brands like Taco Bell have avoided the millennial death curse by creating a unique cultural cachet: teaming up with cool celebrities for merch collaborations and secret menus, and sucking in younger consumers with app-based rewards programs. Applebee’s hasn’t yet announced an NFT collab with the guy who wrote that horrible song about a date night at the chain just yet, but that really seems to be the vibe that Applebee’s is hoping to tap into.
Even though the chain is betting big on the assumption that it can replicate some of fast food’s success, it seems strange to think that it’s a sure bet. Perhaps in places where dining options are limited and Applebee’s is legitimately part of the weekly dining rotation, the idea makes more sense. But mostly, it appears to be Applebee’s admitting defeat against the unmatched power of millennial food snobbery and finally admitting that it’s now just a fast-food chain.