The American Way of Eating

Who eats at Applebee’s—and why?


This is the second of three articles adapted from Tracie McMillan’s new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

Read Part 1 here: I Got Hired To Do the Hardest Job at Applebee’s.

One thing I almost never see at Applebee’s, not in my first week or anytime after, are customers. I hear the one-line stories dropped by waitstaff and managers between runs to the dining room, all of which inevitably skew towards the outrageous and scatological. (“So I take the birthday cake to the table, and her husband says she went to the bathroom and then her friend says, ‘She’s taking a shit.’ I mean, what do you say to that?”) But otherwise, I hear nothing, see nothing of the people who eat here apart from the plates sent back to be corrected by the cooks.

I poll my co-workers, though, about who’s out there ordering all these shrimp-parm steaks (sirloins topped with a handful of grilled shrimp and a dollop of parmesan cream sauce), steak quesadilla towers (strips of grilled beef rolled up with cheese, onions and peppers, burrito style, then grilled, sliced in half and arrayed vertically), and chicken fried chickens (a flat pancake of a chicken patty, breaded and deep fried, served atop two mounds of mashed potatoes and flooded with a peppery gravy that’s been nuked in a Styrofoam cup). So far as anyone can tell me, the typical table at our Brooklyn establishment is occupied by middle-class blacks and Latinos, interspersed with college students plying the bar, a few after-theater drop ins, and a more mixed lunch clientele from nearby businesses. There’s no real way for me to know if “middle-class” means actually middle income or simply that most of those who show up don’t look poor or rich. This is a place, after all, that probably constitutes a splurge for most folks, and our management knows it, reminding us that tax season is beginning and people are looking to spend their refund checks on a treat.

Statistically speaking, the servers’ assessment is probably right: Our patrons most likely come from the middle-to-upper class. Full-service restaurants like Applebee’s tend to draw their customers from higher-income households, a function of economics. Even with deals like Applebee’s “Two For Twenty,” which feeds two adults for $20, a family of four could easily end up with a bill of $70 by the time tax and tip are taken care of. At that rate, families earning $50,000 could spend their “eating out” budget at our tables almost twice a month, while families earning more than $75,000 could do so every six days. But if I am surprised to learn of Applebee’s solid middle-class appeal, even this far from the midwestern highway exits and shopping mall parking lots that I associate it with, that’s only because I haven’t been paying attention to the restaurant industry.

Restaurants like Applebee’s are just a modern expression of a midcentury invention: the family restaurant. Fine dining has existed for the wealthy since the first formal restaurant opened in France in 1782. Quick, cheap food for workers, whether from peddlers’ carts or tavern tables, is as old as modern civilization itself. But eating out wasn’t introduced to the middle class until much later, around the turn of the twentieth century—and even then, it was still modest. Then came the 1950s.

As the American middle class sprawled out after World War II, and we became a nation transported by automobiles, eating out came within reach of far more Americans. First and foremost, we had more money. From 1947 to 1975, our real incomes nearly doubled. And as our incomes rose, we spent more of our money to go out to dinner. In 1940, Americans spent about fourteen percent of their food budget on eating out; by 1975 it was up to twenty-two percent, and by 2010 it was forty-one. But families were heading for suburbia and car culture, making a family outing seem like less hassle. And more women were working outside the home, many of them lured to part-time work as a way to boost their living standards.

McDonald’s gets all the attention as the premier chain of the 1950s (it opened shop in 1948), and it is the indisputable pioneer of turning meal preparation into an industrial activity. But its predecessors laid the groundwork for automated cooking. In the late 1800s, Fred Harvey tacked dining car restaurants onto trains running between Kansas and New Mexico, staffed by uniformed Harvey Girls and serving a wide variety of freshly prepared meals. He pioneered the development of centralized menu planning and, importantly, the logistics management it required. But it wasn’t until the 1940s, at Howard Johnson’s, that centralized food preparation began to enter the mainstream, tying affordable meals to taking the family out as a unit for a sit-down meal.

Howard Johnson’s made its initial fortunes by selling meals to families traveling long distances on state turnpikes before World War II. Along the way, HoJo’s did something even bigger: It figured out what could, and could not, be industrialized when trying to run a sit-down restaurant. At first, the restaurant used all the conveniences that modern industry had on offer to prepare meals. Its central commissaries used condensed bouillon, precooked chicken, margarine and frozen vegetables to prepare massive quantities of chicken pot pie filling and clam chowder. The cooks froze great blocks of the stuff and then shipped it out to be defrosted on site. Then, in the early 1960s, the chain started to experiment with improving their food quality, figuring out how to use modern culinary technology to its best advantage. The company was learning important lessons: If you remove the ultra-perishable bellies from fried clams, you can ship breaded strips of the shellfish out to be fried on-site. Macaroni and cheese tastes better if it is portioned out at the commissary, frozen, and then baked at the restaurant. This was the kind of culinary research that required serious kitchen know-how, and for the key, experimental stint during the 1960s, HoJos employed real chefs for the task. Jacques Pépin, a celebrated French chef of 1960s New York, ran the central commissary in Queens, while his contemporary, Pierre Franey took a post as Vice President and traveled the country doing quality control for the company—even serving his gourmet friends reheated frozen meals on the sly as a way to test their quality. Within the next decade, Howard Johnson’s research paid off—less for HoJos than the emerging fast-food chains like Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and, naturally, McDonald’s, all of which stripped down HoJo’s techniques to offer food quicker and cheaper.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, eating out was more accessible to the middle class than ever before. Rising incomes were part of it, but so were new food distributor networks cropping up to produce, store, distribute and deliver a vast range of pre-made foods that could be cooked, reheated, or assembled from constituent parts into meals. Sysco, today the largest food supplier for restaurants in the country, went public in 1969.

By 1980, when the first Applebee’s opened in Atlanta, Georgia, chain restaurants ruled the suburbs and highways. Sophisticated distribution companies that could manage a mix of perishable, frozen and dry goods with ease were up and running—something critical to developing a standardized menu that went beyond burgers and could be replicated nationwide. Those networks could be hired to supply restaurants, or could provide a template for operators who wanted to run their own, providing a means of expanding singular restaurants into chains.

That’s what happened at Applebee’s, which started out as a neighborhood eatery called T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles & Elixirs, which was headed up by Bill and TJ Palmer. The eatery was so successful the couple sold it three years after opening their doors, to corporate giant W.R. Grace and Company—which eventually sold the rights to the Applebee’s concept to a pair of franchise operators in Kansas City. By the time the company went public in 1989, there were one hundred Applebee’s in the country; in 1999, there were 1,000 all over the globe. Other full-service chains were doing the same, leveraging industrial economies of scale and advanced distribution technologies to move a great river of food down American highways to their myriad far-flung outposts. In 2009, Applebee’s operated 2,008 restaurants, 140 of them abroad. You could get the same Firepit burger in Lebanon as in Brazil, the same platter of riblets in Greece as you’d order in Mexico. Eating at these places became a hallmark of American prosperity, a celebration of mainstream, middle-class success. When Applebee’s opened a restaurant in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 2006, neighborhood leaders and city officials alike considered it a coup—a sign that the tide was turning for one of America’s most infamous ghettoes.

By the time I’m in the kitchen, though, it feels like America’s rising fortunes have stalled. A quarter of New York City lives below the poverty line, and while it has always had more poor than the nation as a whole, the gap has narrowed—not because more New Yorkers moved up in the 2000s, but because more of America got poorer over the same period. Unemployment is peaking, stretching to over ten percent nationwide—and above eleven in Brooklyn. Any sensible working family, really, would be well-advised to cook their meals at home. And yet, they keep coming, flocking to Applebee’s, families and couples and professional lunchers, waiting twenty, thirty minutes—even with some of the city’s most lauded restaurants a ten-minute walk away. In one of my first weeks here, the denizens of my store’s borough, more than a third of them born on foreign shores, spent $122,000 at our Applebee’s, nearly eight times the weekly sales of an average restaurant.

Applebee’s doesn’t sell itself as a cultural experience the way more self-conscious restaurants do, but I suspect that’s just downmarket advertising at work. Our customers might not visit Ethiopia or Indonesia or a lush farm upstate by eating here, but it takes them somewhere else that’s becoming just as rare: the twentieth century American dream, when owning your own home and going out for a nice meal were within easy reach for so many of us. And that, oddly enough, makes my work at Applebee’s gratifying in a way that I doubt I’d find in fine dining. Our customers aren’t here for the food—not in any sophisticated culinary sense. They’re here to take a night off from the daily grind.

From The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.