Startup Journal:

The Friday night crowd at the Applebee’s in Hays, Kan., is so robust that nearly a dozen parties are waiting outside for tables. There are families, old folks, and young singles like Anne Speier and Rhonda Eckler, who’re downing cocktails at a table near the window. “We just got paid and wanted to splurge a little bit,” says the 25-year-old Ms. Speier.

Choosing Applebee’s is easy in a place where there’s little other choice. There is no Chili’s. No Houlihan’s. Not even a Bennigan’s. In this community of roughly 21,000, Applebee’s is the only brand-name casual dining restaurant.

The scene in Hays helps explain why Applebee’s International Inc. is the star of the $440 billion restaurant industry. While competitors battle for space in the parking lots of suburban shopping malls, the Overland Park, Kan., chain is entering rural markets that never before boasted an upscale restaurant — or at least one that passes for upscale hereabouts.

The rural-market strategy is part of Applebee’s larger effort to be America’s restaurant. Its roughly 1,600 units, the majority owned by franchisees, already make it the undisputed king of the industry’s fastest-growing segment, casual dining. But Applebee’s wants more. It wants its red-apple logo to be as recognized as the golden arches of McDonald’s Corp. It wants to be the nation’s most profitable restaurant chain.

Today it is the nation’s ninth-largest restaurant chain and its strategy is simple: Be all things to all people. While competitors launch ethnic chains in pursuit of niches, the Applebee’s menu offers it all: Asian, Italian, Mexican, American and more. For the time-pressed, Applebee’s has sharply reduced how long it takes to receive and deliver orders. For the weight-conscious, it is the first restaurant ever to introduce meals approved by Weight Watchers meals, replete with caloric information.

Yet its most audacious move may be its invasion of towns such as Hays, which sits about 300 miles from Denver and 300 miles from Kansas City in a region known as the middle of nowhere. Ranches, farms, feedlots and slaughterhouses dominate the local economy. It’s not exactly the kind of market one would expect to support a restaurant that offers salmon steaks and merlot. And Applebee’s is taking a risk by opening its restaurant here, right next to a Wal-Mart along a big highway that cuts across the state.

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