The Hottest New Joint in Town Is Club Applebee's

Some of the Restaurant Chain's Franchisees Are Finding Late-Night Success by Emphasizing Appetizers, Booze and Theme Nights

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Chain restaurants probably aren't the first places that come to mind when late-night drinking is on the agenda. But Applebee's is trying to change that .

Certain Applebee's locations in the U.S. have become known as Club Applebee's because locations such as one in Del Rio, Texas, and about 50 Applebee's in central Florida lure customers in with half-price appetizers, drink specials and the promise of dance music or karaoke.

Some locations have become known as Club Applebee's.
Some locations have become known as Club Applebee's.

Brian Masilionis, senior manager-beverage at Applebee's, credits a Florida franchisee, Neighborhood Restaurant Partners Florida, with popularizing Club Applebee's. Pamela Jones, VP-marketing at Neighborhood Restaurant Partners Florida, said that after patrons started calling it that , the franchisee began using the clubapplebees.com domain name for its franchises.

The Club Applebee's locations typically try to have themes most nights of the week, such as karaoke night, trivia night, '80s night and even the occasional luau.

"There's been significant traction the past two years" in the late-night daypart, said Mr. Masilionis. "This particular daypart has been a strong driver in 2010 and 2011, and we still see opportunity moving forward."

Club Applebee's is not marketed nationally; Mr. Masilionis said that it's still a relatively small number of locations -- 100, give or take -- that actually call themselves Club Applebee's. More than 80% of Applebee's locations are open until midnight or later, and the chain in 2010 began marketing itself nationally as being open until midnight or later.

Trying to capitalize on the late-night drinking crowd is one of the few ways for chain restaurants to grow sales, as drinks are one of the most-profitable items on the menu. "Any chain trying to figure out how to drive incremental sales has focused on alcohol and has implemented it on the local or regional level," said David Henkes, VP and head of the beverage alcohol practice at Technomic. "It's a smart strategy because it's an underdeveloped daypart when you look at casual dining," and chains can only grow so much in the dinner daypart.

Some of Applebee's competitors, such as TGI Friday's, Chili's and Buffalo Wild Wings, have been drawing in the drinking crowd with appetizer specials and a stronger emphasis on the bar, but Mr. Henkes said those efforts could muddle the brand messaging for chains such as Applebee's, which are seen as more of a family establishment than a late-night bar.

"They're viewed as a family chain," said Mr. Henkes. "A lot of [these chains] are, and that 's the challenge: How do you position yourself as a destination for those that are looking for a bar, while maintaining a [family-oriented] clientele?"

Applebee's isn't concerned. "Families are a huge part of the business, even for the franchisees that have a strong bar business," said Mr. Masilionis. "Staying open later allows us to have more fun things later at night when kids are in bed. Historically, we may have had more confusion with guests when we closed earlier."

As for what's next in Applebee's late-night world, he said that there are no plans to take Club Applebee's national, but that the "open until midnight or later" messaging will continue. "We're not done talking about it nationally. ... Stay tuned in terms of how messaging will evolve."

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