In July, Nick Pirrone and three friends were driving home from a St. Louis Cardinals game when they stopped at an Applebee’s in St. Charles, Mo., for dinner. It was after 10 p.m., and when the teenagers walked into the casual dining restaurant, they didn’t find the traditional family-friendly atmosphere they’d grown up with. Instead, they found a karaoke bar. “There were a lot of people drinking and singing Backstreet Boys,” says Pirrone, who is 18. “The place was packed. There was even a DJ.” The four ate half-price appetizers and were so amused by the revelry that they returned a few weeks later with a group of 14. “It was actually kind of fun,” Pirrone explains. “I mean, there’s not much else to do around here. It’s the suburbs.”
For the past few years, Applebee’s has quietly been experimenting with a late-night bar and club scene at restaurants around the country. Some, such as the one Pirrone visited in St. Charles, offer karaoke and trivia nights. Others have fashioned themselves into nightclubs where patrons can gobble spinach and artichoke dip under the Day-Glo beauty of black lights. On Aug. 27 the restaurant chain will take its after-hours makeover national, reimagining itself as a destination called bee’s Late Night, where the Bahama Mama cocktails flow and the lights strobe until 2 a.m.
“Remember when McDonald’s (MCD) used to be called Mickey D’s?” asks Becky Johnson, a senior vice president at Applebee’s. “That was a street slang term, people playing with the name. We found out that ‘the bee’s’ is how the kids are describing Applebee’s.” By “kids,” she means twenty- and thirtysomething singles who may eat at Applebee’s with co-workers or family members, but who generally go elsewhere—like, to an actual bar—at night and on the weekends. “The bee’s is an overt invitation to them,” says Johnson. “We want them back.”
Until recently, most of Applebee’s 1,870 U.S. locations closed shop at 10 p.m. This is typical for casual dining chains: Chili’s (EAT) and Ruby Tuesdays (RT) usually call it quits around that time, too. TGI Friday’s, originally a singles hangout, tends to stay open later. Applebee’s became known as a place where parents could bring their children and, as Johnson puts it, “you’d walk in, they’d put a balloon on the highchair, and everything was wonderful.” But a lot of other restaurants had that same image; it’s hard to tell one basket of chicken fingers from another.
In 2009 several franchise owners approached Applebee’s parent company, DineEquity (DIN), a California-based restaurant group that bought the brand in 2007 and also runs IHOP, for permission to extend their hours. They’d been studying customers’ habits, they said, and noticed that younger adults were eating later. This was in the middle of the recession, and if Applebee’s kept its doors open longer, it might attract new customers. DineEquity enthusiastically agreed. Along with a menu overhaul and more franchise ownership, DineEquity credits its growing late-night scene with helping boost Applebee’s same-store sales two years in a row.
Central Florida is the nexus of the bee’s concept. Florida franchisee Neighborhood Restaurant Partners owns 51 Applebee’s from Tampa to Orlando and promotes many of them as faux dance halls called Club Applebee’s. After 10 p.m. they offer ’80s- and ’90s-themed dance parties, karaoke, “Girls’ Night Out,” and a monthly black-light party during which the servers wear white and cover the restaurant’s walls with white cloth.
“Applebee’s is a weird party to work,” says Christian Davis, 30, who DJs at several stores in and around Tampa under the name DJ KuRx. “If I go to a real nightclub, the music is racier. At Applebee’s, they’re trying to get the same feel, but they want you to keep the lyrics PG.” That means Davis has to play a lot of Prince, Usher, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe—of which he says he has “like 20 million different remixes” so he never has to play the same version twice. His favorite Applebee’s to work is in Brandon, Fla., a suburb of Tampa. “They have these soft lights that look like club lights, a lot of booth chairs, like a real swanky New York nightclub,” he says. That is, if a New York nightclub encouraged people with spiky gelled hair to belt out full-throated, heartfelt renditions of Foreigner songs. “We have this one location where they’re hanging from the rafters on Thursday nights down there,” says Alan Porter, who runs the DJ business Santa Fe’ Entertainment. “It’s absolutely crazy.”
That may be the case in Tampa, but can bee’s Late Night go national without jeopardizing Applebee’s workweek lunch rush and family dinner atmosphere? Johnson says it can—if the chain follows a few rules. “We have to make sure that nothing we do for late night interferes with our dinner time,” she explains. “You don’t want someone blasting music while you’re trying to finish your meal.” The company will emphasize this switch by gradually altering the physical appearance of its restaurants. After 9 p.m. the traditional red and white Applebee’s store logo will change so that only the “bee’s” part of the name is illuminated, and the windows will be accented by dim green lights instead of bright white daytime ones. One of DineEquity’s suggested taglines for franchisees to use in advertisements is “See what happens when the highchairs are put away.” Still, families may be in for a culture shock. “I’ve seen people come in and they don’t know what’s going on. They think they’re going to get a quiet meal, but instead there’s people dancing,” says Chris Rexroth, 33, who has been going to a Spring Hill (Fla.) Applebee’s for late-night entertainment for years.
“It’s not as bad as trying to sell pancake breakfasts at Hooters, but I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who has worked with Loews Hotels and Caesars Palace (CZR) casino in Las Vegas. “People aren’t sure what Applebee’s is to begin with. An all-American family chain? What does that mean anymore? This is not where I want to go for cocktails later. It’s weird. It’s like dating a cousin.” The only restaurant that has managed to be both family-friendly and a popular drinking spot, says Wolf, is The Cheesecake Factory (CAKE), but that’s because it has an upscale, brasserie-style atmosphere that Applebee’s lacks. And it’s usually for working professionals seeking a glass or two of wine. It’s not a nightclub.
That may be Applebee’s biggest hurdle—it’s going to take more than a new logo and lighting to make the chain cool. The Cheesecake Factory is classier, TGI Friday’s is more festive, and Chili’s differentiates itself with Southwest-themed dishes and oversized margaritas. Even Denny’s (DENN) can draw a late-night crowd because, as Wolf puts it, “it’s so tacky that it’s funny.” Applebee’s thrives in suburban areas where eating a three-appetizer tasting platter as other patrons in Ed Hardy T-shirts grind to Top 40 music is possibly the best option for a fun night out. “Would I spend every weekend there? No,” says Pirrone. “But if I had nothing better to do, it’s not the worst place I could go.”