Applebee’s decides not to address food allergy community’s concerns
This is a blog entry I hoped I wouldn’t have to write.
These days, an increasing number of restaurants are becoming food allergy and gluten-free friendly. Many of the large, national chains are working hard to accommodate diners with food allergies and intolerances. Not only is it the right thing to do for the millions of Americans with food allergies and/or Celiac Disease, but it is also good for business.
However, in the midst of this positive trend, one chain stands out as being incredibly disappointing – the largest casual dining chain in America – Applebee’s.
Regular readers of the AllergyEats Blog know that Applebee’s came under much criticism in a series of posts last month, and our community came out in large numbers to express significant concerns. The original blog post was from a dairy-allergic diner writing about her terrible experience at Applebee’s, following which many of our blog and Facebook followers shared their own similar stories. At the time, I felt Applebee’s should be given the opportunity to respond and address our community’s concerns directly, which I offered on multiple occasions.
I was hoping Applebee’s would take this opportunity to share their thoughts and consider our feedback. I was hoping Applebee’s would follow-up on their promise to set up an interview between myself and a member of management about their food allergy policies and practices. I was hoping Applebee’s would show that they take our food allergy concerns seriously.
I was let down. We all were.
Here’s a recap.
The saga started on August 17 when we posted an AllergyEats Blog entry entitled “Guest post – Applebee’s disappoints!,” which detailed the story of one disappointing customer experience. This opened up a flood of comments on our blog and Facebook page. The posts showed that a tremendous number of food-allergic diners have had negative experiences at Applebee’s. Given this response, and seeing that they had a poor AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating (2.3 on a scale of 1 to 5), I decided to call and allow them to address the issue.
Days later, after not receiving a call back from Applebee’s, “Guest Services” did post a generic comment on our blog. This “form letter” response was, in my opinion, rather insulting to our community and our concerns.
Thus, we published a second Applebee’s blog entry on August 25, entitled “Applebee’s responds to criticisms in AllergyEats Blog post… weakly!” In it, I expressed my dissatisfaction, and asked readers whether I should further pursue my effort to engage Applebee’s in a discourse to address our issues. Reader reaction suggested I should. Despite avoiding Applebee’s for many years due to its allergy-unfriendliness, many diners still commented that they might go back if the chain demonstrated its willingness to accommodate food-allergic diners.
The day after this post, I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a proactive call from Applebee’s Executive Director of Communications. Finally, we could have a proper dialogue from which both parties could benefit! At least that was what I believed at the time.
As I highlighted in my third Applebee’s blog post on August 27, entitled “Applebee’s contacts us directly – a good sign,” I was encouraged by their willingness to speak with us, yet disappointed that they simply told me about their online allergen list. They seemed to want to avoid addressing our community’s larger concern: the lack of food allergy training and knowledge by restaurant managers and staff. In fact, it seemed that they hadn’t even read our comments.
I volunteered to interview a member of Applebee’s management, host a webcast, or even provide the space for them to write a blog entry – multiple opportunities to “win back” our community. The Executive Director of Communications suggested that I speak with their Head Chef, and I reminded her that our community’s concerns were not centered around the food itself as much as the lack of staff knowledge and training. I asked to speak with a member of operations instead. I was told that I would be put in touch with someone within a week.
And so our blog entries about Applebee’s stopped, in order to allow time for an interview to be arranged. Three weeks went by. I called my contact weekly only to be told each time that they would have someone for me within a week. Finally, at the end of these three weeks, I was shocked when she told me that she was still trying to solidify a conversation for me with one of their Head Chefs. Head Chefs? I thought we already went through this! Frustrated, I asked again to speak to someone in operations. I was told that I would receive a call back and have something set up that week.
Can you guess what happened next? Right. Nothing.
The benefit of the doubt is now gone. After four weeks of unreturned calls, unfilled promises, and a lack of focus on my request, I have no choice but to assume they are deliberately avoiding dealing with the issue. (I even notified them of this sentiment and asked them to call me if they disagreed. No call.)
So here we stand, over a month later, with Applebee’s having strung us along in poor faith, hoping we’d go away. Apparently, they have never met me.
They are foolish for not understanding that catering to our community is good for business! I used my skills as a 17-year financial veteran to prove this in a February AllergyEats Blog post entitled “How Much Are We Worth? – The ‘Veto Vote’.”
Basically, with roughly 2000 Applebee’s units, 80% of which are owned by franchisees, and using modest assumptions (more so than in my blog entry), I assert that the company could be generating an additional $15 MILLION OR MORE PER YEAR in after-tax profits by simply accommodating our food allergic and Celiac community.
This additional profit stream would benefit shareholders immensely! Over time, it could boost their parent company’s corporate profits, and thus stock price, by 30% or more! Should management care yet? How about shareholders?
So what is Applebee’s doing instead? They are spending roughly $150,000 per restaurant for renovations (i.e. putting lipstick on the pig). How much does food allergy training cost? A heck of a lot less than that! Ironically, I doubt a renovation will generate the additional long-term revenue boost that becoming food allergy-friendly would.
And where are the Applebee’s franchisees in all of this? Do they realize that they pay a large percentage of their revenues to a corporation that is unwilling to consider the huge sales and profit potential of catering to the food-allergic community? I bet they wouldn’t be happy about that.
So where does this leave us?
First of all, my phone line remains open to Applebee’s in the hope that we can finally engage in an open and honest dialog about food allergy practices. My goal is for our community to have a positive influence on this enormous restaurant chain.
Secondly, I believe it is now time to spread word of Applebee’s current disinterest in serving food-allergic diners farther and wider than before. Do we want any members of our community taking potentially fatal health risks by dining at Applebee’s?
Third, I think it is critical that we continue to gather more comments to further spotlight the frustrating and frightening dining experiences so many members of our community have had at Applebee’s. Perhaps if we “gather more evidence,” management at Applebee’s will listen.
This is not a personal crusade against Applebee’s; this is an effort to improve the situation, which all began with a simple blog entry. It was the outpouring of unusually negative community feedback that led me to contact Applebee’s corporate offices in the first place.
Why can’t Applebee’s, the largest casual dining chain in America, become inspired by food allergy-friendly peers like P.F. Chang’s, Legal Sea Foods, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery, Not Your Average Joe’s and many others?
It comes down to a single word: commitment. If the commitment to being allergy-friendly doesn’t start at the top, it will never become part of the corporate culture. Fortunately for us, as other chains have demonstrated, the reverse is also true.
Perhaps Applebee’s doesn’t want our business. Maybe they fear that attracting food-allergic diners will increase their risk of a lawsuit. That mindset was prevalent a decade ago, but in 2010? Too many other restaurants are positively addressing our needs for this to be true.
In light of all the above, and to preserve the safety and integrity of our community, please share this post with every food allergic individual, support group, regional and national organization you can. Let your local Applebee’s franchise owners know that they may be forfeiting significant profits each year (possibly over $15,000) due to corporate’s ambivalence over this issue (as corporate continues to collect up to $100,000 or more from each franchise each year) . Call the Applebee’s customer service numbers and reiterate our concerns regarding food allergy knowledge and training. Maybe if we galvanize the food allergy community, Applebee’s will finally respond!
They know my name; they know my number. It is up to Applebee’s to decide whether they wish to engage in this dialog.
Now, even when I’m dining without my food allergic children, I’m done with Applebee’s. Count me as one more lost customer. I wonder how many readers will be with me.