I recently attend Applebee’s blogger summit, Behind the Menu, at their Kansas City headquarters. I was reluctant to go at first because I hadn’t been to an Applebee’s in years and don’t care for their food all that much. I’d rather go to a mom and pop Asian restaurant and have a bowl of pho, frankly. After discussing the opportunity with a friend, I decided to go as the would offer good insight into the trend of chain restaurants offering healthier menu items. Also, since KC is so close to Denver, it would be an easy and quick trip.
Applebee’s PR agency put together a small but intimate group of blogging veterans and newbies who blog in several niches from healthy lifestyle to food to family. While most of us flew in from around the US, several bloggers were KC locals:
- Army Wife 101
- About A Mom
- Dine & Dish
- Real Mom Reviews
- RM – Making Geek Look Good
- Roni’s Weigh
- Our Kids Mom
- Kansas City Mamas
- Fat Fighter TV
- Mommy of Two Little Monkeys
The Behind the Menu summit
The objective of the summit was to give us a behind the scenes look at the Applebee’s brand, their history, and their food. The highlight of the trip was meeting Chef Shannon Johnson, VP, Culinary and Menu Strategy and Jessica James, Executive Chef. They were with us the whole time explaining menu development, food sourcing, quality controls, and training.
They also cooked up dishes off the new U550 (under 550 calories) and Weight Watchers menus. We had a chance to taste many of the U550 and the three new Weight Watcher entrees that premiered in restaurants on Monday, February 20. The dishes were really tasty and the portion sizes were generous.
Frankly, I had been under the impression that all their food – even the healthier stuff – is just reheated in the restaurants. They proved me wrong when they took us in the back to the test kitchen to show us exactly how the dishes are made in the restaurants from scratch using fresh ingredients.
It was very interesting to learn how Applebee’s comes up with their new dishes. Chefs Shannon and Jessica explained how they develop new menu items, a lengthy process that takes 12 to 18 months. For the U550 menu they come up with 60 ideas on paper, pick the 20 strongest dishes, and prepare a food show for Applebee’s executives, marketing people and franchise chefs to get their feedback. After the food show, three to five dishes are then tested by groups of consumers.
For their Weight Watchers menu, they create slimmed down versions of their regular menu. They also travel around the country to try regional dishes, a process they call “dine arounds.”
Applebee’s also collaborates with their vendors to create items used in their dishes, like hamburger buns or desserts. Their vendors create items especially for Applebee’s and made to their exact specifications.
Seasonal influences play into menu items as well especially for the Weight Watchers dishes since they are packed with fresh vegetables. The U550 items are also veggie heavy and focus on bold flavors, sauces, seasonings, onions and garlic. It’s hard to believe that they’re under 550 calories.
Healthing up the Applebee’s menu
Applebee’s philosophy is to offer a variety of items to fit people’s needs and wants whether that’s healthy or decadent. In fact, they’re working on providing more vegetarian versions of their popular dishes. They also offer online allergen information on common sensitivities like soy, egg, dairy, peanut, nut, gluten, and seafood and understand how dietary needs, allergies and food sensitivities make dining out a challenge.
Applebee’s Culinary Team is concerned about healthing up their menus as well, and look at every ingredient to improve nutrition, quality and taste. That’s why Weight Watchers only works with Applebee’s. It’s also why starting in May 2012, Applebee’s will be part of the Kids Live Well program. Their plan is to add more whole grains and vegetables to the kids menu, but still make the food palatable to kids.
The reality of the situation
All in all I have a new appreciation for Applebee’s and was impressed with their generosity in sharing their processes. The culinary and marketing teams truly care about quality, seasonal foods, healthier dishes, company history, and their brand’s mission. I was also impressed that dishes at Applebee’s are made from scratch from quality ingredients.
However, I see a disconnect at the franchise level. For example, one blogger from Pennsylvania complained that her local Applebee’s was awful – cold food, overcooked nasty steaks, rude servers, etc. Shannon said that he’ll be going out to visit that location soon and often makes unannounced visits to Applebee’s around the US to make sure that the franchisees are keeping up with quality and training their staffs properly.
To test my theory about HQ food vs. franchise food, I took the $25 gift card I was given at the event and took my family out to the Applebee’s in Longmont, Colorado. The wait staff was great – super friendly and helpful. My “SkinnyBee” margarita (only 100 calories) was even more delicious than the one I had at HQ. My son, Nathan, and I had steak and both were perfectly done. The substitution I asked for (no potatoes, double the veggies) was done to my satisfaction. Good portion sizes, too.
Still, the food didn’t look as pretty as it did at HQ and on the menus. The food tasted good at the restaurant, but it wasn’t as good as what we were served at HQ. There’s definitely a difference between the highly trained and experience chefs at HQ and the line cooks at the franchise restaurant.
Even so, I’m happy to promote Applebee’s healthier menu options to my readers. Americans need healthier choices when going out to eat, and Applebee’s provides that.
Disclosure: Applebee’s provided transportation, lodging, meals and a goodie bag including a $25 gift card. All experiences and opinions are my own.