Recent news that a bankrupt Applebees franchisee plans to shutter 163 restaurants in 15 states was greeted by the chattering class as the latest evidence that America’s fast-casual restaurants are headed the way of Bennigan’s. For urbanites, this seems to constitute an interesting trend on par with all the other “Millienials Killed the Radio Star”-type trends. But for rural and suburban parents, the potential collapse of fast-casual constitutes a borderline existential threat. Applebees is, after all, one of the last places American parents can hang out without feeling even the vaguest urge to try.
When I lived in Portland, Oregon a decade ago, local eateries catered to parents who just needed a little break. Nearly every neighborhood had a locally-owned restaurant that was perfect for families. A joint called Slappy Cakes, for instance, allowed kids to make their own pancakes while parents drank delicious bloody marys. It rocked. In addition, many pubs offered toy-filled kids corners along with their microbrews, and at least two restaurants were hip spots specifically designed for children. It was a family outing wonderland.
I sort of assumed there would be similar spots in suburban Ohio so I wasn’t too concerned about the whole eating out thing when I moved. Boy, was I naive. We still have some great eateries here on the outskirts — there are mom-and-pop diners and pubs and bars — and most have kids menus. But these places aren’t for families. Not really.
I could take my kids to the barbeque place that has all the televisions for the kids to watch, but I’ll also have to deal with the fact that it’s basically a bar with bar people, bar noise and bar language. I could take them to the diner for Mickey Mouse pancakes, but aside from the shape of their food, that place is boring as hell and full of old people. I’d rather stay home and cook.
I’m the sort of person who unapologetically (or vaguely apologetically) avoids giving money to big businesses over family businesses when and where possible. However, Applebees can have my hard-earned bucks. The local franchises may be cookie cutter, but they’re effectively cookie cutter. They suit my family just fine. In addition to crayons and kids menus, they have tablets at the tables with games and televisions that can anesthetize my kids. They also have booze for me. And there’s no judgment.
Is this all good for my kids? Probably not, but it’s not a nightly thing. It’s good for me — a bit of a break — and I think that’s enough.
I remember, as a young city dweller, going to an Applebees with my Colorado parents. There, I witnessed the families and their children. I watched the brats squeal and fuss. I heard the birthday chant. I saw the tired eyes of the mothers and fathers who clutched big cocktails in their fists. I felt nothing but superiority and disdain. I was a real dick about the whole thing.
Now, I see chain restaurants as oases. I mean, for a while I tried to patronize the local Applebees with a sense of irony. I tried to tell myself we were dining there sarcastically and didn’t really belong. But oh, how we belong. And eventually, I had to embrace the fact that chain restaurants give me, and families like mine, a place for us to be together where we are required to give absolutely zero shits. My children have the joy of going to a restaurant, and I have the joy of not worrying about them being in an actual restaurant.
The thing about Applebees is that it was purpose-built to be the neighborhood hangout for non-existent neighborhoods. That sounds like a bad idea, but it emphatically is not. Applebees has become, for many, a place to hang out with friends and neighbors. Not only that, it has become a very chill place to hang out with friends and neighbors. This is important and necessary. Every town needs a metaphorical town square and not every commuter ‘burb has one.
The necessity of a chain restaurant is not something that person in a city filled with options is going to understand. But, take it from me, Applebee’s isn’t a joke. It’s a damn fine institution. When it goes — if it goes, and I doubt it will — parents will mourn.