The new look at Applebee's features Edison bulbs and exposed brick

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Sixteen months after a fire that burned it to the ground, the Applebee’s at Welsh Road and Roosevelt Boulevard reopened Monday. Following a ceremony honoring the Philadelphia firefighters who responded to the inferno, a ribbon was cut and dozens of loyal customers rushed in.

Ed, a 70-year-old retiree who lives nearby, was one of the first to take a seat at the bar. He settled in, gave a cheery “How’ve you been?” to Brittany Pellegrino, a bartender who’d worked there for five years before the blaze forced her to temporarily relocate, and looked around. Something was different.

“It looks kind of industrial,” Ed said. “It’s very noticeable.”

He paused, took note of the bare Edison bulbs strung along the counter, the chalkboard draft list and the exposed brick walls. “It’s different,” he concluded, “but I like it.”

Good thing. The new design at the Northeast Philadelphia outpost — which takes its cues from the decor that’s become ubiquitous at urban bars — is a harbinger of the future for the family-friendly dining chain. At least in this region.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“This is a prototype,” said Jeffrey Warden, president and CEO of the Rose Group, which owns and operates 56 Applebee’s locations in the Delaware Valley. “We’re kicking the tires. We’ll see how the new elements incorporated here work, then tweak and reuse them [in future remodelings].”

He pointed to the sleek concrete floors beneath the high-tops in the bar area. “No carpets! No ‘wood-burning’ TVs,” Warden said, sweeping his hand in front of the dozen flatscreens that buffet the spacious, wrap-around bar. Instead of six beers on tap, there are now 15. There’s an impressive modern JBL sound system installed in the loft-like ceilings, right below open plumbing painted a matte black.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

But wait. This is the same company that, per national headlines this August, “gave up on millennials” because a pivot to attract a younger crowd had failed. These articles were based on an earnings call statement to investors by brand president John Cywinski in which he said that the brand’s “pendulum swing” to attract a “youthful” and “sophisticated” audience had “created confusion among core guests,” leading to a loss in sales and the shutter of more than 100 stores.

This contraction was lumped in by the media with the general decline of what Eater called “middlebrow chains” — part of a big package on the downward trend that called out Applebee’s as the standard-bearer (title: “What’s the Matter With Applebee’s?”).

But per Warden, that August earnings call statement was misinterpreted — and perhaps poorly worded.

“I don’t think that was the right way to say it,” said the franchisor, who bought his first Applebee’s in 1999. “The notion that we ‘dropped millennials’ just isn’t true. Thirty percent or more of our customers are millennials.”

Wonton tacos are surprisingly good Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

He prefers to think of his younger target demo in what he called “sociographic” terms: The college students who flock to happy hours and gamedays, the toddler-toting young parents looking for a place with a spacious bathroom for diaper changes and breastfeeding, the friends looking for killer deals to make their dollar stretch. The hand-cut steaks cooked over an open flame that were introduced in 2016 are gone, he said, but many of the other new items, like wonton tacos, remain on the menu.

And compared to last year, Warden told Billy Penn, sales at his Applebee’s are up. “Millennials especially loved the Dollarita [unlimited $1 margarita deal],” he said. “The Center City store did really well.” (Hey Jeffrey, you’re welcome!)

Of the rumors that the Center City outpost will disappear, by the way, he said there was “no intention of closing” and that the real estate listings floating around were because “the landlord is negotiating.” There aren’t plans to update the decor at the 15th Street Applebee’s anytime soon, because it’s doing just fine and also is in a historic building, which comes with its own roadblocks to construction. When it comes time to do so, Warden said, the interior will be customized to its locale.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

At the Welsh Road location, he pointed out, the “hipster” look of the bar and lounge is softened by more cozy design elements in the surrounding dining areas. There may be Philly-themed artwork of distressed wood hanging on the walls, but the booths below them are just as cushy and are surrounded by the familiar plush carpeting.

The new look was just fine with Pat Tyson, a retiree who was sitting with a friend at the bar, sipping Coors Light over ice. Before the fire, she used to come nearly every day for a quick drink, she said, and had become so familiar with the employees that she referred to several of them as her “kids.”

“It’s a tight-knit crew they have here,” Tyson said. “They were so excited to see each other again. This Applebee’s — it’s a neighborhood.”

“Yeah, this is Philly,” Warden said, “but it’s Northeast Philly. We wanted it to have some of the new elements and some of the older ones, so everyone feels comfortable.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...