In the News: A Makeover at Applebee's?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

I just read a New York Times profile of Julia Stewart, the CEO of IHOP, which is the parent company of Applebee's.

It seems that casual dining chains are finding that they blur together in consumers' minds and are fighting hard to distinguish themselves from the bunch, especially in this economic downturn. Ruby Tuesday pretended to blow up a (competitor's) restaurant as part of a marketing campaign to unveil the chain's new décor. Now, Applebee's is poised to make small but vital changes to its menu, which Stewart believes will bring it to the head of the pack.

Chain restaurants can be a healthy eater's Kryptonite, and that's not likely going to change any time soon, judging from Stewart's comments in the story:
"You don’t come up with a quesadilla burger by catering to dieters. Applebee’s flags some menu items that have been approved by Weight Watchers, but the company is not exactly cutting a path through the calorie jungle.

That’s because what people say they want and what they eat are often different, [Stewart] said as she sat in a booth at the IHOP. Nearby, a family of four was pouring different flavors of syrup over stacks of pancakes “That’s what people want,” she said."

Are sugary, heavy, greasy, cheesy, over-the-top foods really what people want? She might be right, but would people make better choices if healthier dishes were more readily available?

Are people choosing mozzarella sticks and riblets because there are no healthy dishes available, or are there no healthy dishes available because people are choosing mozzarella sticks and riblets? (I'm not trying to single out Applebee's, and in fact, they do have nine healthy choices on the menu. This argument could be applied to almost any restaurant, chain or local.)

What do you think? How do you navigate the giant menus and oversized portions at restaurants?

Photo: Screen capture of Applebee's website

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    The last time I ate at Applebees I asked for steamed vegetables (without butter), and a salad without cheese, croutons or dressing. When I received my food, the salad had BACON BITS and RANCH on it, and the broccoli was smothered in "garlic butter". The waitress said "I know you didn't want butter, so I added a little garlic butter" I hope that's okay....NO. I want to eat Healthy--so it's NOT okay. Furthermore, I'm lactose intolerant. So were I to take a cheat day, if the *ranch* doesn't send me running to the bathroom the *butter* certainly will. I didn't say these words, but instead, declined to eat my meal. It almost seems as though most of the mainstream restaurants think customers who are actively trying to make healthier choices are "just saying words", rather than making better choices in terms of food. I have also requested a grilled chicken breast (no sauce, no butter), only to receive some sort of cheese covered concoction. Needless to say, Apple Bees is NOT my favorite restaurant. - 9/13/2015   8:47:50 PM
  • 198
    We live in a little town and sometimes it gets to be late, but we don't want the McDonald's or Taco Bell, and maybe Cracker Barrel has already closed to night - so rather than drive into the big town 5-10 miles away and because the "healthier" restaurants might have also closed, we'll end up at Applebee's. It's getting to where my husband and I will split like the Chicken Oriental Salad or one of the other entrees, or we'll buy something with the idea that we know ahead of time that we'll end up taking most of it home and eating it for lunch or dinner the next day. Their portions are so huge and there's really nothing in the way of healthy appetizer. We would actually order some if they had it, but we end up deliberately having to beat them at their game because we'll refuse to buy any of the alcoholic drinks or soda pop (which they are counting on to help wear down your defenses about "eating healthy" - I don't believe that hogswallop that Ms. Stewart was trying to pass off in the article about 'what people say they want to eat and what they actually do eat'. Sometimes what they actually do eat is the junk only because the chain does not really put out a quality effort in producing a lower fat high quality "clean" food.).. There have been times when we've literally made an entree last for three different meals just by eating one correct sized portion (smaller than my fist) and eating the rest at home in equally small portions. - 7/18/2015   11:26:45 PM
    I look up what I want before I go to the restaurant and try to find nutritional stats. If there aren't any, I try to guess the best I can and eat more veggies and lean protein during the day if I'm going for dinner. - 5/26/2013   10:57:31 AM
    ASK for what you want! Yes, it's that simple. Dressing on the side, steamed veggies instead of french fries. I had a Cobb salad the other day and had them leave out the bacon and cheese but add extra turkey...they had no problem doing that. If an establishment won't substitute for you I suggest finding a different restaurant to eat at. Any Chef will know what a "serving" of any food costs that's in their kitchen. So by taking out the bacon and cheese they knew how much extra turkey to add that was approx. the same cost to them as that bacon and cheese were. - 2/25/2012   9:35:54 AM
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    Navigation, Yes it is a hard course to learn, I do navigate when eating out
    the main thing is ASK the server to tell you what is in it,they should know.I ordered salmon the other day at a restaurant it came with
    butter sauces on top of fish, told the waiter to leave it out and have an extra side maybe? Yes. It works. - 2/24/2012   4:36:22 PM
  • 194
    I think the casual dining chains are right - what people say they want is one thing but when they go out & pay money, they often order the items they shouldn't have. That being said, my boyfried and I eat out a lot - several times a week, and once a week is at Applebee's. I order a side salad (no croutons, extra cucumbers) and a side steak - a little 4-5 oz sirloin. Neither are shown on the menu but they are in the cash register system so ask your server to ring them up for you. If they don't know how, ask to see the manager. Not to get the server in trouble but so next time you won't have the same problem.
    The same kinds of items are available at lots of places - Chili's where they have a soup or chili & salad combo all the time. You can request sandwiches without cheese, and entrees without Ranch dressing! Still need more options? Again, ask for the manager because he or she has more training and knowledge of what can be done. they want you the customer to be happy and return so they will get you what you want.
    I personally would like to see better quality fish products, fewer cream soups and more minestrone and vegetable options, and brown rice to go with the black beans so many places now offer. Sepaking of the, I sub black beans as a side quite often, and corn, broccoli, mixed veggies, etc without butter too. We do need more baked potatoes and better prices on these healthier dishes. It's tought to go for Happy Hour deals and only get offered the greasy, cheesy & fried stuff. If a salad were on special, they'd find out what folks really want to eat. - 2/16/2012   12:28:22 AM
    Applebees is missing out on the market of healthy eaters. Of all the restaurants, I eat at IHOP the most because their Simple and Fit menu has a number of choices within my calorie range for a meal, and I can ask them to hold the salt. Applebees choices are not only more caloric (even for the WW items), but they are WAY too salty. Even if I ask to hold the salt, I get a dish that tastes like a salt lick.

    That said, at restaurants I order the healier items, ask for no added salt, and if the portion is too large,which it usually is, I ask for a box. I still have not turned in my membership for the "clean plate club," so I try and give myself reasonable portions to start in order to avoid over eating. Besides, if you can get two or three meals out of it, the cost of dinning out doesn't seem so bad. - 2/15/2012   1:35:03 PM
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    Most restaurants have great low calorie options. Finding a low calorie meals is not difficult, at all. What is almost impossible is finding a low sodium meal. Why does there have to be so much salt? I know it is used to bring out the flavor, but do you really need 3180 mg to bring out the flavor in the Asian Shrimp & Broccoli? - 2/3/2012   3:03:18 PM
    just had a plain salad from applebee's. i told them to hold the cheese and egg. what i got was a nice salad with bacon on it. who would have thought it would have bacon on it. it went back. being vegan and going out to any restaurant is challenging. - 1/7/2012   11:51:38 AM
  • 190
    My favorite restaurant these days is Cheesecake Factory. They have a 'Skinnylicious' menu where everything is delicious and (supposed to be) under 590 calories and the portions are large. - 1/6/2012   8:55:25 AM
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    Before I leave for the restuarant I make my choice on the online menu. I can pick the healthier things and I'm not tempted with seeing the other menu items. - 7/18/2011   6:14:39 PM
    I generally try to make healthier selections when we eat out because we tend to eat out about once a week-a 1,200 calorie meal can really hurt a week of healthy habits. My grouse-a lot of chains seem to think slapping a grilled chicken breast on a plate with some broccoli is good enough for a healthy offering. Well hello-I can do that at home. I'd love to see more creative and delicious options that are also healthy. Heck-if I can rock healthy food at home professional chefs ought to be able to whip up amazing stuff. - 5/18/2011   11:47:18 AM
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    Ummmm interesting thoughts....for me the problem is that the healthy choices are not always as good. They look tasteless or portions are beyond petite and or there is only 1 great choice and you had it the last time you went. Variety is key and it has to be appetizing..some items don't give you alternatives without the whole meal costing a lot and still unhappy. I don't say this just about applebees but many chain restaurants have this problem. - 5/15/2011   4:06:17 PM
  • 186
    Its funny you chose to call out Applebee's because I have a hard time picking from all the great LOW calorie options when I go there. I think it is a great restaurant for not only its Weight Watchers options but also its Under 550 calorie menu. Yes, they have some VERY high fat high cal options, but give them some credit for amazing dishes like the cajun lime tiliapia (seriously, an entire plate of tasty food for UNDER 400 calories?!). - 5/15/2011   1:31:52 AM
  • 185
    I think people do specifically go to chain restaurants in search of greasy, terrible food. Just like no one is going to McDonald's seeking a nice, healthy salad. (Though the way McDonald's gives the illusion of health is troubling.) I know my friends and I always go to local restaurants, where the food is mostly healthful and reasonably portioned.

    I know many people also say that including calorie information on menus would deter people from making poor choices, but I remember reading recently about a study that showed this was not true. Even when people knew about the high calorie counts of food, they still made the same choices. Sometimes you just want some deep fried cheese, you know? - 3/18/2011   7:00:46 PM
  • 184
    I don't know, but when I eat out, 95 percent of the time I order something that is under 500 calories. (The exception being the occasional celebration, maybe once every couple of months.) If a restaurant does not have healthy options on the menu, or if nutritional information is not readily available, then that restaurant will not get my business. Applebee's does have a few healthier options that taste pretty good. I just wish they had MORE of that and fewer burgers, fries, etc. - 3/15/2011   10:03:32 AM
  • 183
    I wish the restaurant chains (and the locallly owned as well) would offer selections lower in fat , but even more, I would like to see them knock a great deal of the salt out of their recipes! It is astonishing to me how much sodium is in the most benign of entrees! - 3/15/2011   9:51:51 AM
  • 182
    I do like eating at Applebee's and other restaurants like it and I can usually find something healthy on the menu to eat. I would like to see more restaurants offer things like carrot and celery platters as an appetizer option. I have gone to restaurants that offer those types of things on the kids menu as a side. I think it's a good idea for the adult menu too. It would at least give us an option for something healthier to munch on while waiting for our meal. - 3/15/2011   8:49:34 AM
  • 181
    Here in California there is a new state law that makes all restaurants put their nutritional info right on the menu, ordering board, etc. McD's, Starbucks, even small local places all have to do it. this should be nationwide. I know it has helped me immensly! California is pretty forward in it's thinking when it comes to food and weight loss. - 2/14/2011   1:20:39 PM
  • 180
    I find it very sad that many restaurants will not publish their nutritional information (like T.G.I. Fridays) and that most cook in unhealthy ways (using lots of butter, heavy sauces, use of trans fat, etc.). Most people (not on SparkPeople) don't really know what they are eating (because they won't look up the info, or have no idea what that info means), so how are they supposed to make informed decisions? If restaurants could cook like we do at home and offer healthy yet tasty food items in correct portions, I'm guessing we would have a lot less obesity in our country.

    When I was not on SparkPeople and not following a healthy lifestyle, I thought I enjoyed fast food and junk food. It wasn't until I realized how I was hurting my health that I discovered that those foods don't taste good when you are eating healthy. They usually make me sick now or at least really run down and lacking in energy. I would rather eat at home where I know what I'm eating. When I do have to eat out for one reason or another, I try to find the healthiest options that are still tasty, but it's very hard, especially if you don't get to pick the restaurant. - 1/14/2011   5:14:17 PM
  • 179
    Applebees and other restaurants that have healthier choices on the menu know how often that healthy choice is selected and how often the 3000 cal chili cheese fries are selected.

    They are making a business decision. - 12/20/2010   12:51:12 PM
    I am so disappointed that our Applebee's here in town closed down. We try to eat at an Applebee's when we travel and almost always choose the Weight Watcher menu. - 12/14/2010   9:11:31 AM
    I actually go to applebees specifically FOR their weight watchers menu! I'm not following weight watchers, but I know that something that is a reasonable point value for them will not destroy my positive eating habits. The recipes are actually quite good! - 5/17/2009   9:24:45 AM
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    There's always something to be found on the menu at Applebees for the diet-wise. Granted, 95% of that menu is fat/salt/sugar-laden...but there's enough to keep me happy and healthy! - 5/16/2009   4:31:39 PM
  • 175
    I have contacted Applebees about their nutritional info and why they do NOT provide it, I received a letter in the mail saying that since they had so many chains, they could not accurately give this information. I find that kinda funny considering that McDonalds has way more stores than Applebee's, yet somehow, they manage to give the nutritional info....I am not a fan of applebee's simply because they do not provide nutritional info, and that does not work for me since I have no clue how many calories I am eating.... - 5/15/2009   1:11:21 PM
    I agree about chains and their calorie laden choices. I do think Applebees is one of the better ones. I was very disappointed though yesterday; I ordered a turkey burger from Ruby Tuesdays thinking it would be somewhat within my guidelines. I looked it up on the computer after lunch and was shocked it was over 800 calories! My bad - usually I look up restaurant nutritional values before I go to lunch - but Come On - who orders a turkey burger only to find out you could have had less calories with a McDonalds entree! Sorry for the vent - just mad I was fooled. - 5/15/2009   12:22:56 PM
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    I ate off the healhty Applebee menu I was filled & it was only 300 calories - 3/15/2009   7:17:56 PM
  • 172
    I ate at Applebees...a student had given me a gift certificate as a gift. I hadn't been there since I was in Weight Watchers last year, a time when they had a page of WW approved meals. Now, even though I am a Spark People member, I still look for "guiltless" menus and WW approved menus to chose from, since they are "lighter fare" choices. I was dismayed that Applebees spread the choices among several pages, making it more difficult to find. Whatever happened to their wonderful grilled chicken sandwich on a whole wheat bun? I miss the good ole days.
    I vote for all restaurants to devote one page to the "calorie watcher"...a safe haven of choices. Please add all important info (calories, fat, carbs, etc., even if it is in an 8 font) so we can take control of our meals...not our meals take control of us.
    These days, hubby and I check out the restaurant choices before heading out for a meal, so we know what to choose before surprises afterwards. Some restaurants have not nutrients listed, so it is really hard to figure out how things are prepared. As mom always said...Make good choices. Knowledge is Power. - 3/15/2009   5:36:42 PM
  • 171
    I only go into Applebee's and Chili's for ONE reason: their low-cal entrees. - 3/15/2009   12:28:53 PM
  • 170
    I won't eat at a restaurant that I'm unable to add my meal to my tracker. I've done it a couple times and I won't go back to those places. Calistoga's- no nutritional info available Anywhere. Everywhere else I eat though, I can find it somewhere. I discovered last night that one place I thought would wreck my diet, is actually an excellent option- BD's Mongolian Grill! They have Everything posted online, you choose precisely the ingredients that go into your food, and watch them cook it in front of you- no hidden surprises, and the food's so tasty even my kid loves the place! - 3/14/2009   5:47:59 PM
  • 169
    We usually eat at home because it tends to be faster, easier, and less expensive than eating out at a restaurant, but if we go out to eat in the middle of the week, it's always Applebees because of their Weight Watcher's menu items. They taste great, are reasonably priced, and you know how many points you are consuming. What's not to love about that? - 3/14/2009   3:19:11 PM
  • 168
    Agreed that the option is wonderful but when I have the option to eat out I'm not usually thinking about how I'm going to eat the healthiest item on the menu. I'm spending my money to eat out, I'm making that my meal I splurge a bit on. - 3/14/2009   10:33:39 AM
  • 167
    I like their pecan crusted chicken salad. Don't even want to know how many calories!! I do order smaller one and usually bring home half. - 3/13/2009   12:08:02 PM
  • UPTO30
    I'm a vegetarian and try to eat and buy vegan as much as possible (Maybe one meal a month is not vegan). I went to Applebee's recently and it was a nightmare. I asked how the cooked veggies were prepared and I was told they come with sauce already on them so I couldn't get anything steamed. I asked about substitutions and sandwiches without cheese, butter or mayo and was told they couldn't do that. I ended up getting a plate of spinach with mushrooms (not cooked cause the waitress said she couldn't guarantee no butter would be used) and peppers on it and still had to pay $8. I was so mad. I know that I'm more picky than the average dieter but I was shocked at how much was pre-made and non-negotiable. I won't be going back that just doesn't seem healthy to have so much of the menu pre-packaged. I was surprised because I constantly see commercials advertising their healthy options. - 3/13/2009   9:13:27 AM
  • 165
    When we eat out at a restauraht, my husband and I usually pick a meal, usually steak or salmon with a baked potatoe, and split it between us with an extra vegetable. We have therefore created better portion control and we get something we are going to enjoy without the guilt. - 3/13/2009   1:38:30 AM
    I eat fast food several times a week, and at a sit-down restaurant about once per week, and I firmly believe you can find healthy choices at any restaurant. I also firmly believe no food is off limits with the right portions. If you're at the point where you're blaming the restaurant industry for making you obese, it probably doesn't matter what they do, because you'll find an excuse. - 3/12/2009   6:07:24 PM
    I personally, don't like Applebee's. I think it's overpriced for what you get. They do have some healthy options, but I could still eat a LOT cheaper and healthier at home. - 3/12/2009   3:35:57 PM
  • 162
    I appreciate applebee's having the healthy menu, and it is pretty tasty, but almost anytime I go there I'm going to choose boneless buffalo wings. They're just my favorite. So for me, it's a personal choice. I'm glad the option is there, but if I'm paying to eat out I'm likely to go with what I love. - 3/12/2009   2:38:56 PM
    There are healthy choices, but if they do not taste body is going to want to eat them. I have found a few healthy choices that tasted good. One example is the shrimp tacos at On The Border. They were really good. - 2/24/2009   10:31:50 AM
  • 160
    Not only do you have a choice in menu items (you can usually find one or two healthy items in any restaurant - I used to work in an Italian restaurant and we had five low-cal, low-fat entrees and salads), but you have a choice in restaurants! If you know a restaurant doesn't have any healthy items you would eat, then don't go there. I've eliminated several restaurants I used to eat at because there was nothing healthy I would have liked. And I really don't miss them all that much. - 2/8/2009   5:11:31 PM
  • 159
    Ive noticed that at resturants that have healthy options the healthy options are eaither over priced or dont look appetizing to me at all. I dont eat at Applebees because the only time I went there I got sick but I do eat at other resturants. I normally just get a regular menu item and either ask for special preperation or put half in a to go container. - 1/27/2009   9:25:44 AM
  • 158
    Are you guys kidding me? Applebees has the weight watchers menu!! I ate there yesterday for a delicious lunch that had only 360 calories! Applebees is the easiest low cal chain restaurant to eat at. - 1/27/2009   8:19:37 AM
  • 157
    I use to love Applebees. But after living in Italy for a while, I realized how bad American food really is. In Italy, (as long as you aren't near a tourist trap) the food is usually prepared with fresh ingredients, not processed. And the food isn't made until you order it - no pre-cooking.
    When we went back to America to visit family, we hit Applebees (and also IHOP, Ruby Tuesdays, and others we use to love). We realized that for the most part, the overprocessing of food ruins the quality of it.
    Food tastes so much better when it is fresh! I'm glad that I live here and when I finally move back to America, I will most likely avoid the restaurants since they just aren't that good. - 1/26/2009   1:31:58 PM
    I used to like Applebee's, and would only really get thier WW Menu. I hate to tell Ms.Stewart, people only eat the food that is given to them. When you have 1 healthy item on the menu and all it consists of is a tiny portion that wouldn't even fill up a barbie doll, of course people are going to choose the items that are going to fill them up. DUH! I stopped eating at Applebee's 1) because their food isn't really that good, I could get the same thing in my grocers freezer section for a lot less money. If I want to go out for dinner, I choose a Darden owned restaurant like Long Horn or Olive Garden. If you go to both their websites, they have the calorie content for most or all of thier menu items. And the great part about it is that once I looked up this information, I saw that most of the things I get really aren't that calorie heavy, don't get me wrong, some are, but you can make healthier choices without having to give up taste. Olive Garden also has put their healthy fare choices on their website!! - 1/26/2009   11:53:41 AM
    I love Applebees! Most of the time my husband and I share an entree. When I am with friends I order and ask for a to go box. I cut the servings in half and transport it home for another great meal. - 1/26/2009   11:31:00 AM
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    Applebee's has in fact been scaling back their menu choices and hard-hit have been the Weight Watchers items. Too bad, some of them were very tasty - I still enjoy the WW Chicken Portabella sandwich with its side of beans and fruit with a cup of decaf. Sadly, the WW French Onion soup that was on the old menu was one of the short-sighted casualties of Stewart's make-over plan. When the chicken portabella goes, so goes James.... - 1/26/2009   9:20:25 AM
  • 153
    I definitely like to indulge on occasion when I eat out, but I often try to pair the fattening burger with a side of broccoli instead of fries. I also try to eat only half of the portions I'm served out. Yes, the menu offerings and the size of portions is not helpful to anyone concerned about their health, but with a little education each of us can make responsible choices when we dine out. - 1/26/2009   8:42:22 AM
  • JUICE68
    I have tried a number of items on Applebee's lowfat menu and have not enjoyed any of them. I avoid this restaurant for that reason. I can eat much healthier at other restaurants. - 1/25/2009   3:15:29 PM
  • 151
    As a Philly Cop eating on the job is whenever you can get a bite. Applebees is the last on my list when it comes to dinner time due to earlier stories of the inacuracy of their nutritional values. I find eating dinner at home to be more nutritional, even if I have my dinner at lunch time and my lunch at dinner time. It all depends on my tour of duty (8x4 or 2x10) As a newcomer to spark, I was surprised how easy it was for me to keep track of my calories and other nutrional values. So since I am eating my lunch during working hours on either tour, if I am not bringing in a nutrional sandwich, fruit, or meal bar, Dunkin Donuts (DD Smart Menu) seems to be working fine. Lost 8-pounds in my first week (Goal 30lbs in 16 weeks). Thanks Spark and thanks to all of you for the information. - 1/20/2009   9:48:52 PM
  • 150
    I try not to eat at Applebee's, I think they are pricey, too large of meals, but if that is where we end up, I try to roll with the flow and I always get a weight watchers meal. I am pleased that is on the menu. - 1/19/2009   8:18:19 AM

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