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Under the Toque: Shannon Johnson says guests call the shots at Applebee’s

Under the Toque: Shannon Johnson says guests call the shots at Applebee’s

Ever since Applebee’s merged with IHOP last year, Shannon Johnson, the casual-dining chain’s director of culinary innovation and development, has been extremely busy. A media relations staffer at Applebee’s headquarters equated tracking Johnson down with “trying to put a finger on mercury.” But when Johnson stood still long enough to discuss his career with NRN via e-mail, he reported that, despite his hectic schedule during the transition to a new corporate parent, he still takes orders from just one person: the guest.

Customer feedback influences his research and development work as much as his diverse culinary education and work experience, Johnson says, and that quest for guest satisfaction is evident in his team’s most recent menu rollouts: the choice-driven Ultimate Trios and Pick ‘N Pair Lunch Combos.

Please explain your background and how you arrived at your position with Applebee’s.

Growing up in the South, I was exposed to great food crafted usually by my mother and grandmother. My earliest memories are food memories. I first became interested in food as a career as a teenager. During high school I was fortunate to work in a white-tablecloth restaurant owned by Tim Hennen, a Chattanooga restaurant business legend. I then moved on for more formal training at Johnson & Wales. After graduating, I worked in independent restaurants and a small resort property and completed a stint in B&I with Motorola.

I was hired by the Walt Disney Company in 1996 and worked as an executive chef in Disneyland. My first real R&D work was in preparation for the 2001 opening of Disney’s California Adventure. Chef Brian Tossel took me under his wing and taught me a great deal with regard to documentation and organization of such a large endeavor. We worked to refine the offerings for over 20 food venues that all opened to the public on the same day.

Had you always wanted to do culinary R&D?

Initially, I thought R&D was a little hocus-pocus, but I soon fell in love with refining the technical details of a product. I love making consistency in flavor, texture and presentation easier for operators, which in turn makes for a positive guest experience. It’s what I call “better food by design.”

In what ways has having a new corporate parent changed your approach to making new menu items? Are there different priorities for the menu now?


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When prepping artichoke hearts or bottoms, cook artichokes whole, including the stem, in a brine of water, sea salt, black peppercorns, thyme, bay leaves and halved lemons. When tender, place the artichokes into a salted ice bath. The cooking stops the oxidation process and makes removing the “choke” more manageable.

Our approach has remained the same. The Applebee’s menu development and innovation team is very structured in approach and artful in execution. We have a formalized “stage gate” process that enhances our ability to be creative. This sort of structured creativity allows us to develop operator-friendly products, each with the DNA of the Applebee’s brand.

Another recent transition for Applebee’s has been one to a new marketing campaign. How does this affect your priorities for menu development?

The marketing message is built into the development process. The design of new products is always matched with the emotional message of the advertising. Our team strives to always deliver on guest expectations. Part of that is the ad messaging, and a larger, more tangible part is the menu descriptions themselves. Food is one of the few purchases that we make with just a written description and a picture. We spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that our guests receive everything they expected and then some.

The Ultimate Trios, Pick ‘N Pair Lunch Combos and Dessert Shooters all create value with reduced-size portions. How hard is it to come up with flavorful food when your end result needs to be smaller than what diners are used to?

You are correct in the notion that flavors need to be more intense if they are presented in smaller portions. The size of the portion is not only offset by flavor, but also by choice. Giving the guest the freedom of choice is very important in offsetting the impact of portion. The flavors are not hard to develop. The hard part is selecting what we want guests to choose from. Our consumer insights team does an amazing job of helping us figure that out. Armed with that knowledge we can then design products that delight our guests and also work within our operational parameters.


Title: director of culinary innovation and development, Applebee’sBirth date: Feb. 23, 1968Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn.Education: Johnson & Wales University, Beringer Vineyards School for American Chefs, Notter School of Confectionary Arts, Court of Master Sommeliers level 1 certificationCareer highlights: becoming executive chef of the Scottsdale Hilton Resort and Spa at age 23; being a member of the opening team of Disney’s California AdventurePersonal: engaged to be married in SeptemberHobbies: sailing, photography, woodworking and wine collecting

What’s your philosophy as the leader of Applebee’s menu? What makes a dish worthy of being put on the menu across the entire Applebee’s system?

Actually, I don’t lead the Applebee’s menu, our guests do. This brand has evolved, and will continue to evolve, based on the latest feedback from the consumer. We just have to be smart enough to listen and react. The Applebee’s guest is very brand-loyal, and because of that we get lots of great feedback. Through consumer testing, our guests let us know when a dish is ready or when we have more work to do.

Have any recent product introductions surprised you with how well or poorly they sold?

We work hard to limit surprises, but having said that, we are pleasantly surprised by how well we have done with building choice into the menu.

Are there any specific dishes that represent what you’re all about as a chef?

As a chef, I want to deliver approachable new experiences for our guests that are satisfying, memorable and unique to the Applebee’s brand. This team’s most recent menu reflects that spirit.

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