Howard Johnson’s made its initial fortunes by selling meals to families traveling long distances on state turnpikes before World War II. Along the way, HoJo’s did something even bigger: It figured out what could, and could not, be industrialized when trying to run a sit-down restaurant. At first, the restaurant used all the conveniences that modern industry had on offer to prepare meals. Its central commissaries used condensed bouillon, precooked chicken, margarine and frozen vegetables to prepare massive quantities of chicken pot pie filling and clam chowder. The cooks froze great blocks of the stuff and then shipped it out to be defrosted on site. Then, in the early 1960s, the chain started to experiment with improving their food quality, figuring out how to use modern culinary technology to its best advantage. The company was learning important lessons: If you remove the ultra-perishable bellies from fried clams, you can ship breaded strips of the shellfish out to be fried on-site. Macaroni and cheese tastes better if it is portioned out at the commissary, frozen, and then baked at the restaurant. This was the kind of culinary research that required serious kitchen know-how, and for the key, experimental stint during the 1960s, HoJos employed real chefs for the task. Jacques Pépin, a celebrated French chef of 1960s New York, ran the central commissary in Queens, while his contemporary, Pierre Franey took a post as Vice President and traveled the country doing quality control for the company—even serving his gourmet friends reheated frozen meals on the sly as a way to test their quality. Within the next decade, Howard Johnson’s research paid off—less for HoJos than the emerging fast-food chains like Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and, naturally, McDonald’s, all of which stripped down HoJo’s techniques to offer food quicker and cheaper.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, eating out was more accessible to the middle class than ever before. Rising incomes were part of it, but so were new food distributor networks cropping up to produce, store, distribute and deliver a vast range of pre-made foods that could be cooked, reheated, or assembled from constituent parts into meals. Sysco, today the largest food supplier for restaurants in the country, went public in 1969.
By 1980, when the first Applebee’s opened in Atlanta, Georgia, chain restaurants ruled the suburbs and highways. Sophisticated distribution companies that could manage a mix of perishable, frozen and dry goods with ease were up and running—something critical to developing a standardized menu that went beyond burgers and could be replicated nationwide. Those networks could be hired to supply restaurants, or could provide a template for operators who wanted to run their own, providing a means of expanding singular restaurants into chains.
That’s what happened at Applebee’s, which started out as a neighborhood eatery called T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles & Elixirs, which was headed up by Bill and TJ Palmer. The eatery was so successful the couple sold it three years after opening their doors, to corporate giant W.R. Grace and Company—which eventually sold the rights to the Applebee’s concept to a pair of franchise operators in Kansas City. By the time the company went public in 1989, there were one hundred Applebee’s in the country; in 1999, there were 1,000 all over the globe. Other full-service chains were doing the same, leveraging industrial economies of scale and advanced distribution technologies to move a great river of food down American highways to their myriad far-flung outposts. In 2009, Applebee’s operated 2,008 restaurants, 140 of them abroad. You could get the same Firepit burger in Lebanon as in Brazil, the same platter of riblets in Greece as you’d order in Mexico. Eating at these places became a hallmark of American prosperity, a celebration of mainstream, middle-class success. When Applebee’s opened a restaurant in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 2006, neighborhood leaders and city officials alike considered it a coup—a sign that the tide was turning for one of America’s most infamous ghettoes.
By the time I’m in the kitchen, though, it feels like America’s rising fortunes have stalled. A quarter of New York City lives below the poverty line, and while it has always had more poor than the nation as a whole, the gap has narrowed—not because more New Yorkers moved up in the 2000s, but because more of America got poorer over the same period. Unemployment is peaking, stretching to over ten percent nationwide—and above eleven in Brooklyn. Any sensible working family, really, would be well-advised to cook their meals at home. And yet, they keep coming, flocking to Applebee’s, families and couples and professional lunchers, waiting twenty, thirty minutes—even with some of the city’s most lauded restaurants a ten-minute walk away. In one of my first weeks here, the denizens of my store’s borough, more than a third of them born on foreign shores, spent $122,000 at our Applebee’s, nearly eight times the weekly sales of an average restaurant.
Applebee’s doesn’t sell itself as a cultural experience the way more self-conscious restaurants do, but I suspect that’s just downmarket advertising at work. Our customers might not visit Ethiopia or Indonesia or a lush farm upstate by eating here, but it takes them somewhere else that’s becoming just as rare: the twentieth century American dream, when owning your own home and going out for a nice meal were within easy reach for so many of us. And that, oddly enough, makes my work at Applebee’s gratifying in a way that I doubt I’d find in fine dining. Our customers aren’t here for the food—not in any sophisticated culinary sense. They’re here to take a night off from the daily grind.
From The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.