The American Way of Eating
Who eats at Applebee’s—and why?
This is the second of three articles adapted from Tracie McMillan’s new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.
Read Part 1 here: I Got Hired To Do the Hardest Job at Applebee's.
One thing I almost never see at Applebee’s, not in my first week or anytime after, are customers. I hear the one-line stories dropped by waitstaff and managers between runs to the dining room, all of which inevitably skew towards the outrageous and scatological. (“So I take the birthday cake to the table, and her husband says she went to the bathroom and then her friend says, ‘She’s taking a shit.’ I mean, what do you say to that?”) But otherwise, I hear nothing, see nothing of the people who eat here apart from the plates sent back to be corrected by the cooks.
I poll my co-workers, though, about who’s out there ordering all these shrimp-parm steaks (sirloins topped with a handful of grilled shrimp and a dollop of parmesan cream sauce), steak quesadilla towers (strips of grilled beef rolled up with cheese, onions and peppers, burrito style, then grilled, sliced in half and arrayed vertically), and chicken fried chickens (a flat pancake of a chicken patty, breaded and deep fried, served atop two mounds of mashed potatoes and flooded with a peppery gravy that’s been nuked in a Styrofoam cup). So far as anyone can tell me, the typical table at our Brooklyn establishment is occupied by middle-class blacks and Latinos, interspersed with college students plying the bar, a few after-theater drop ins, and a more mixed lunch clientele from nearby businesses. There’s no real way for me to know if “middle-class” means actually middle income or simply that most of those who show up don’t look poor or rich. This is a place, after all, that probably constitutes a splurge for most folks, and our management knows it, reminding us that tax season is beginning and people are looking to spend their refund checks on a treat.
Statistically speaking, the servers’ assessment is probably right: Our patrons most likely come from the middle-to-upper class. Full-service restaurants like Applebee’s tend to draw their customers from higher-income households, a function of economics. Even with deals like Applebee’s “Two For Twenty,” which feeds two adults for $20, a family of four could easily end up with a bill of $70 by the time tax and tip are taken care of. At that rate, families earning $50,000 could spend their “eating out” budget at our tables almost twice a month, while families earning more than $75,000 could do so every six days. But if I am surprised to learn of Applebee’s solid middle-class appeal, even this far from the midwestern highway exits and shopping mall parking lots that I associate it with, that’s only because I haven’t been paying attention to the restaurant industry.
Restaurants like Applebee’s are just a modern expression of a midcentury invention: the family restaurant. Fine dining has existed for the wealthy since the first formal restaurant opened in France in 1782. Quick, cheap food for workers, whether from peddlers’ carts or tavern tables, is as old as modern civilization itself. But eating out wasn’t introduced to the middle class until much later, around the turn of the twentieth century—and even then, it was still modest. Then came the 1950s.
As the American middle class sprawled out after World War II, and we became a nation transported by automobiles, eating out came within reach of far more Americans. First and foremost, we had more money. From 1947 to 1975, our real incomes nearly doubled. And as our incomes rose, we spent more of our money to go out to dinner. In 1940, Americans spent about fourteen percent of their food budget on eating out; by 1975 it was up to twenty-two percent, and by 2010 it was forty-one. But families were heading for suburbia and car culture, making a family outing seem like less hassle. And more women were working outside the home, many of them lured to part-time work as a way to boost their living standards.
McDonald’s gets all the attention as the premier chain of the 1950s (it opened shop in 1948), and it is the indisputable pioneer of turning meal preparation into an industrial activity. But its predecessors laid the groundwork for automated cooking. In the late 1800s, Fred Harvey tacked dining car restaurants onto trains running between Kansas and New Mexico, staffed by uniformed Harvey Girls and serving a wide variety of freshly prepared meals. He pioneered the development of centralized menu planning and, importantly, the logistics management it required. But it wasn’t until the 1940s, at Howard Johnson’s, that centralized food preparation began to enter the mainstream, tying affordable meals to taking the family out as a unit for a sit-down meal.
Tracie McMillan, a freelance journalist whose work centers on food and class, is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, was published in February 2012. Learn more on her website.