Chef Shannon Johnson has been named vice president of Culinary at Applebee’s, marking his second go-round with the brand. He previously served as the chain’s executive chef from 2003 through 2011.
Johnson has served as interim head of culinary since June and will report to CMO Joel Yashinsky in his elevated role, where he is tasked with driving menu strategy and culinary innovation for the brand.
“I’m super excited to be back. It feels like putting on a comfortable pair of jeans,” he said during an interview this week.
Johnson’s career started at independent restaurants in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. He then moved into an executive chef position at The Scottsdale Hilton Resort and Spa in Arizona and then landed at Motorola as executive chef and operations manager. There, he was tasked with creating new items for the corporate business, which included 70,000 employees in the U.S. alone.
“That job taught me a lot about the scope of potential new items. It ran on a six-week menu cycle and that repetition and volume of food was a launching pad of my innovation career. It gave me the mindset to do repetitional menus,” he said.
After three years, he moved onto Disneyland Resorts, where he served as executive chef for seven years. That was his last role before moving into the Applebee’s system in 2003, where he was charged with innovating products and training teams in the field on execution.
“It gave me a good sense of what operators needed. I met a bunch of franchisees who still exist in the system today,” he said.
In 2006, Johnson had the opportunity to work on a major menu revamp with Bill Palmer, the company’s founder and a major franchisee who died in 2020. That experience was transformational. Palmer became not only a mentor but a close friend, and Johnson said his legacy is part of the reason he came back to the company.
Prior to that return, however, he had stints at McDonald’s, leading new product development. He said that experience taught him about systems and processes. In 2013, he was recruited to be the chief innovation officer at KFC by former Applebee’s CMO (and later president) John Cywinski, who was leading the chicken brand at the time. When new leadership came in, he went back to Chattanooga to direct a culinary and hospitality school, and then jumped back in the foodservice space in 2017 when he was named VP of food and beverage innovation at Pilot Flying J – his most recent position before boomeranging back to Applebee’s.
“Every career move of mine has been additive. I’ve never gone backwards, and I’ve learned something different in each role,” Johnson said. “Through each of those roles, I stayed close with the Applebee’s leadership team. I’ve always had a passion for the brand, so when the need for the position came up, I shared some interest and I felt comfortable coming back on.”
Johnson admits things are different on the culinary side than they were during his initial time with the brand. Consumers are more sophisticated about what they’re eating and a bit more adventurous, for instance. But his plan is to stick to Applebee’s “distinctive DNA.”
“This is an iconic American brand that prides itself on abundant value, a focus on the guest and being true to itself,” he said. “My job is to make sure I follow that roadmap and innovate.”
He’ll do so with the help of a “young and passionate team that is energized.” Their priority is to make sure the brand is hitting on its value proposition and staying close to what the guest wants, and what the franchisees and their employees need to execute.
“I think of it as a three-legged stool – the guest, team, and franchisee – with innovation serving all of those constituents. That balance is super important,” Johnson said.
Value will remain the brand’s No. 1 priority when it comes to innovation. Johnson points to Applebee’s all-you-can-eat boneless wings deal with the choice of any six sauces as a good example here.
“When you combine all-you-can-eat and then the extra value with having a choice on top of that, that is huge for guests,” he said. “Adding more sauces or maybe a dry rub is an easy way operationally to make sure we have that innovation, so you’ll see those things pop up.”
Johnson adds that innovation doesn’t have to include a “shiny new object,” and points to the chain’s new quesadilla salad as an example.
“We’ve made quesadillas for years. We have a quesadilla burger, and now we have a salad. It didn’t take anything new, we’re just thinking about how we can elevate that category and have fun with it,” Johnson said. “We’re creating something of value because it’s not widely offered in the marketplace.”
That said, Johnson’s focus will be on the brand’s burgers, appetizers and Sizzlin’ Skillets.
“Those are where our guests are seeing value in. Appetizers are really strong for us, mainly because we can pair them with beverages at the bar and we have a strong beverage team. Burgers, we can set ourselves apart from QSR and fast casual and that overall experience of not having to eat out of a bag in your car. Sizzlin’ can only be fresh and very few offer that experience day in and day out. We’ll innovate around that space in the future,” Johnson said. “Right now, though, we’re focused on the fundamentals – developing items with abundant value and executing them consistently.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]