Applebee’s has had a complicated relationship with its franchisees. In 2016, when the brand rolled out a wood-fire grill menu, franchisees where required to pay handsomely for those grills. But in the end the menu flopped, much to the ire of franchisees.
Brand president John Cywinski has been working on building back trust with those franchisees since he started his post in March. (He has worked for the brand twice before.) The relationships are important. Applebee’s is wholly franchised operated, with only 36 partners who operate the nearly 1,900 restaurants.
“The first thing I did was I went on the road and conducted roundtable discussions with each of our franchisee partners,” Cywinski said. Meeting with each franchisee is only possible with a brand like Applebee’s that has limited partners, he said.
“During the roundtables, I had an opportunity to listen and share my point of view on perhaps why the brand had struggled for a couple of years, but more importantly listen to franchisees, build some trust, reconnect. Trust and mutual partnership is better than ever.”
And business is growing strong too, as seen in parent company Dine Brands Global, Inc.’s second-quarter earnings. Applebee's domestic system-wide comparable same-restaurant sales increased 5.7 percent.
New initiatives like improvements in technology and to-go orders have helped bolster sales, but these new initiatives are not hoisted on franchisees, said Cywinski. Since those early roundtables discussions, Cywinski frequently meets with Applebee’s franchisees. We “gather for a day talk about a strategic imperative where I need their commitment, and I'll secure their commitment.”
At a franchisee conference last year, Cywinski said he wanted Applebee’s to be the most improved restaurant brand. In Cywinski’s eyes, Applebee’s is well on its way, and he credits his franchisees, in part, for getting the brand there.
“Our ability to actually meet and talk about these decisions, whether it's a reinvestment in the ad fund, or a beverage initiative, or a reintroduction of riblets, our ability to do that has been a tremendous benefit,” he said.
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