Applebee's Hires Former Chili's Exec to Lead Culinary Turnaround
Another former Brinker executive has joined Applebee’s turnaround efforts. The DineEquity chain announced Tuesday that Stephen Bulgarelli, who spent the past five years as vice president of food and beverage at Chili’s, assumed the chief culinary officer role to head the culinary team at Applebee’s nearly 2,000-unit system.
"Chef Stephen possesses a unique balance of strategy, creativity, and team orientation that will elevate our menu and strengthen our culinary culture," said John Cywinski, president of Applebee's, in a statement. "All of this coupled with his passionate focus on our guests makes Stephen the ideal partner for our franchisees."
Cywinski himself is a Brinker transplant, having left his post as executive vice president of the casual dining company, which also operates Maggiano’s Little Italy, to join Applebee’s in March. Cywinski also clocked time as president of KFC’s nearly 4,500-unit U.S. business from 2010–2014. Previously, Cywinski served as chief marketing officer at Applebee's, where he led brand strategy and was responsible for the Applebee's Carside To-Go and "Eatin' Good In The Neighborhood" initiatives.
Before Chili’s, Bulgarelli was the vice president of culinary innovation at O’Charley’s, held two leadership roles with T.G.I Friday’s, and was an executive chef at LSG Sky Chefs. He’s a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America as well.
“As the biggest casual-dining brand in the country, Applebee's is America's neighborhood kitchen, and I am honored to create original and downright good food that millions of people will be able to enjoy each week. In collaboration with an already stellar culinary team, we'll be focusing heavily on listening to our guests to help drive the changes that will further set Applebee's apart," he said in a statement.
The news puts an official stamp on what Cywinski revealed during DineEquity’s second-quarter earnings statement.
“Stephen is a [casual-dining restaurants] veteran and has been leading Chili's culinary efforts over the past five or so years. While Stephen brings deep experience commercializing many initiatives across large-scale brands, what I value most is his clear guest orientation, his passion for ops-driven innovation without unnecessary complexity and his commitment to franchisee collaboration,” Cywinski said in an August 14 conference call. “These traits will certainly serve Stephen well here at Applebee's.”
Bulgarelli is stepping into a challenging arena. Applebee’s same-store sales fell 6.2 percent in the second quarter versus the prior year quarter. For the first six months of fiscal 2017, Applebee’s same-stores sales declined 7 percent compared to 2016. The chain also announced during the earnings that it plans to close upward of 135 stores in fiscal 2017.
From a culinary perspective, Bulgarelli will be tasked with bringing Applebee’s back to its center—a place the brand strayed from in recent years, Cywinski said in the call.
Instead of targeting millennials and consumers “with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset,” Applebee’s hopes to return to “its middle America roots and its abundant value positioning,” Cywinski explained.
Basically, this entails two target segments: routine traditionalists and value seekers.
During the call, Cywinski said Bulgarelli will head up three culinary priorities for Applebee’s.
No. 1: Reestablish a relevant innovation pipeline.
No. 2: Address quality and value gaps that emerged from the chain’s core menu satisfaction survey.
No. 3: Assess whether the brand gets credit. “Truly gets credit for hand-cutting steaks in the restaurant and whether we should continue with this approach. A tested guest and ops-driven decision will be reached with franchisees over the next few months,” Cywinski said.
“Our action steps are clear, the work is underway with an emphasis on abundant value, presentation and taste, including the possible reintroduction of a few guest favorites that were removed as part of the earlier referenced repositioning effort,” Cywinski added.