Why Applebee’s is adding a new culinary capability every year (2024)

Applebee’s just launched a new line of chicken sandwiches, and while the initial headline may have been that the casual dining chain is now a bigger part of an intensifying category, the real story is the fact that those chicken sandwiches are hand breaded.

Sure, other chains use this technique for their offerings, but for Applebee’s, hand breading is new. And it’s the first of many new capabilities the chain is planning to introduce to its kitchens. This is the directive of chef Shannon Johnson, who was named vice president of culinary at Applebee’s in September. He is driven by the possibilities such new techniques create.

Related: Applebee’s adds new chicken sandwiches, late-night promotion

“We can spin more items off of (hand breading). ‘Capability’ for us means that innovation comes faster because we now have a new platform to work from,” he said during a recent interview at parent company Dine Brands’ headquarters in Pasadena, California. “Initially, everyone was congratulating us for joining the chicken sandwich wars, but that’s not the point. The point is the capability.”

Inspired by the “limitless” opportunities hand breading offers, Johnson wants to add a new capability to the kitchen every year. (Though he’s not quite ready to share what ideas are on the horizon).

“We have potentially hundreds of products that can come just from this one capability, so imagine more,” he said.

Applebee’s started with hand breading because it didn’t require any capital investments, other than added operational training.

“It was the easiest one to fail at and get a pass because it was very low risk,” Johnson said.

Of course, it helps when everyone is on board, from the executive team to the frontlines and, so far at least, that seems to be the case.

“What this means is we’ve got a new and improved sandwich, and we can improve our pastas and salads that might have chicken – all sorts of innovation,” CMO Joel Yashinsky said.

President Tony Moralejo made it a point to note that no such capability or product would be introduced without the blessing of the operations team, however, including COO Kevin Carroll, the operations committee, and franchisees.

“We test it, we vet it with them, we do a stress test in the system and work through it. When it’s all thumbs up and green lights, we roll it,” he said.

Having a new technique – and, down the road, techniques – will allow the Applebee’s culinary team to create more items for testing. Though, it’s hard to imagine that team becoming more prolific than it is now, with over 300 items currently in test.

Funneling those 300 or so test items

That frenetic pace is intentional. When Johnson came on board in September, it was actually his second go-round with the company. His first stint was as executive chef more than a decade ago.

“Re-entering the brand, I had no idea what the needs were anymore. I needed to relearn the brand and the best way to do that is to just create and create and create. I wanted some data,” he said.

There is method behind the madness, which has helped Johnson get to a place where he feels more comfortable now than he did in September. Essentially, Applebee’s funnels those 300-plus items into categories that include high performers down to low performers, as well as items that need more work or operational tweaks. The categories themselves are defined by consumer insights, business analytics scores and “the needs and wants of team members versus guests.”

“It’s a cycle. It’s ongoing and we’re working really fast,” Johnson said.

To no surprise, value has become a bigger part of that formula, which is how the chain’s recent Whole Lotta Bacon Burger made it to the menu.

“Our guests were saying they love our burgers and that there was room for more burgers at Applebee’s,” Johnson said. “The (Whole Lotta Bacon) burger checked the value filter from an abundance and price point standpoint, and it tested phenomenally, so we quickly moved it onto our calendar.”

How that burger – or those hand breaded chicken sandwiches – have performed will likely become clearer during Dine Brands’ upcoming earnings calls. What we know now is there will be much more menu news coming from the brand; the goal is about 12 new items per year.

“Part of this is to be able to have fresh items for our guests and to bring forward what they’re looking for, and our chef has been doing a phenomenal job building out a pipeline – whether it’s hand breaded chicken sandwiches, product improvements or a new appetizer,” Yashinsky said. “To be honest, we had some opportunities to get more, new, relevant innovation in our culinary and (Johnson) is taking that on in full swing.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [emailprotected]

Why Applebee’s is adding a new culinary capability every year (2024)

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