Don’t blame millennials for Applebee’s closures

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

The headline-of-the-day recently was that Applebee’s and other chains are slipping because of their failure to attract millennials.

I understand that they’re having trouble capturing younger customers, but to blame the next generation seems off. Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s the food.

Earlier this summer, Business Insider quoted Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith from a letter to shareholders as saying that young diners are more interested in cooking and ordering delivery, rather than eating in fast-casual restaurants.

“Millennial consumers are more attracted than their elders to cooking at home, ordering delivery from restaurants and eating quickly, in fast-casual or quick-serve restaurants,” wrote Smith, who reportedly will retire at the end of this year.

B-dubs’ main offering is a breaded, deep-fried, chicken wing that’s rolled in a choice of sauce and then dipped in ranch dressing (or bleu cheese).

For those who don’t eat meat, the only thing on the menu that’s not fried is a garden salad and a bean burger. You can also order the carrots-and-celery garnish that comes with the wings as a side. I agree it may be ridiculous to complain about a chicken wing chain’s vegetarian offerings, but the options are laughable. It’s literally a dish of carrot sticks.

At Applebee’s the menu is vast and includes low-calorie and other diet-conscious items, but in spite of its full name — Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar — there’s not much that is local about it. When you order fiesta lime chicken, it’s going to come out of the kitchen looking exactly the same, whether you are in Taylor or Topeka.

More than millennials are being turned off on this style of dining. It’s likely that the tastes and desires of people of varying ages are evolving. The trend is fresh, made-from-scratch food prepared in kitchens that are locally owned.

Celebrity chefs are a thing, even on a local level. When Mabel Gray chef James Rigato and Grey Ghost’s John Vermiglio teamed up a few weeks ago for a Sunday night dinner at Frame in Hazel Park (inside of joebar) it sold out quickly, in spite of the $60-per-person price tag. It’s common to see chef-driven pop-ups and one-night-only dinners like this sell out around town, even if they are $100 or more per seat.

Blame social media before blaming the kids. It’s not just millennials that take photos of their food and consider social media in where they choose to eat.

What looks better on Instagram? A photo of fried appetizers from a sit-down chain or colorful small plates and avocado toast? Do you really want to “check in” and tell your whole Facebook feed that you’re at Red Robin? Probably not, but if you went to Mudgie’s in Corktown, you might.

I would even blame Netflix before blaming people born in the 1980s and ’90s.

There are hours of documentaries warning of the dangers of the meat industry, factory farming and fast food like “What the Health,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Food, Inc.,” “Super Size Me,” “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” and the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced “Cowspriacy: The Sustainability Secret.”

Furthering our susceptibility to food snobbery are Netflix offerings like the gorgeous series “Chef’s Table,” which dives into the story of a different world-renowned chef in each episode, or “Three Stars,” a documentary that explains the process of awarding Michelin ratings to restaurants.

Dr. Joel Kahn is a cardiologist and restaurateur who owns GreenSpace in Ferndale. He is one of the doctors interviewed in the aforementioned documentary “What the Health,” and he says he can see that people are looking away from chain dining.

“I think the bottom line is that young people — and I can see it in my restaurant every day — they’re open-minded, they’re looking for transparency and they’re not weighed down by the convention that meat-and-potatoes is the staple of good health,” he said, adding that young people are seeing that their body is “not a chemistry lab.”

He says the healthy, real food movement is “definitely connecting at an age level above millennials.” It’s older people in their 40s to 60s that are coming into his restaurant — which only serves plant-based foods, no meat or dairy — that make mention of these documentaries, though.

“They were shocked awake that their source of food was contaminated and had an aspect to the environment and potentially animal cruelty to a level that hasn’t really thought about. They’re wide open and bushy-tailed to try something new and more whole food and more real food and we’re offering a fare that’s kind of matching that.”

So don’t blame millennials, or don’t blame only millennials. If fast-casual chains like Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings want to survive, they need to be more transparent about what is being served and offer a healthier variety.

From Food Network to “foodie” culture, people of all ages are becoming more aware of where food comes from and how it’s prepared, and that may be the real death knell for these businesses.

Twitter: @melodybaetens