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Grilled Salmon is a popular item on the Applebee’s menu, and many contestants in the Top Apple Chef Competition were inspired to create dishes using the wood-fired grill.

The Spirit of In-House Competition

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An Applebee’s franchisee channels its staff’s creativity with a competition designed to boost employee morale and community engagement.
By Linda Formichelli October 2016 Chain Restaurants

When executives at The Rose Group, a restaurant franchise company in Newtown, Pennsylvania, noticed the staff at their 56 Applebee’s restaurants were using the restaurant’s ingredients to invent meals of their own during breaks, they decided to channel all that creativity toward a franchise-wide cooking competition.

The Top Apple Chef Competition, which is in its sixth year, is open to all staff in both the front and back of the house, though they see more cooks than servers competing. The first level takes place in each of the restaurants, where the employees and managers vote to determine which staff member will be going on to round two. These store champions go on to the district finals, where one finalist is chosen from each of the eight districts. These finalists then represent their district at the Top Apple Chef Finals Competition.

At the finals, which take place at the Newtown Applebee’s, contestants take turns cooking several plates of their creations in the kitchen and then presenting them to the judges. Family, friends, and regulars often attend to watch; once the judges have tasted the food, they share it with the spectators and other contestants. It’s like a Food Network program, minus the acerbic judges and crying contestants.

Competitors need more than a great-tasting recipe to become a Top Apple Chef. The judges interview all contestants to learn their motivation, their inspiration, and their cooking experience. Contestants also provide a worksheet with a cost breakdown and a suggested menu price, and they must be able to create the dishes within Applebee’s ticket time standard of 14 minutes. Dishes that are quick to prepare and that offer value have an advantage over slower and more expensive recipes.

In addition, contestants are required to use approved products that are already available in the restaurants—no bringing in exotic spices or unusual vegetables. This rule led to a conundrum one year when a contestant created pancake-battered french fries with amped-up ketchup, using batter from the flapjack fundraisers Applebee’s allows charities to hold in its restaurants on weekend mornings. “The fries were phenomenal,” says Jeff Warden, CEO of The Rose Group. “There was a long delay because everyone was grabbing fries and the [contestant] had to go back and make more. The question was whether that [entry] was within the rules because we don’t serve pancakes … but we do. So he went on to the next level.”

Besides the opportunity to win prizes—all finalists receive a specialty chef knife, a cash prize, and an engraved plaque—a big bonus for the staff is that they get to show off their passion and creativity, and experiment with new techniques and equipment. “We now have the new wood-fired grill, and contestants were motivated to have that to play around with,” Warden says. In fact, many of the finalists’ entries this year involved the grill, including the Butcher’s Steak Salad that nabbed the top prize for Manuel “Alex” Castelan of the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Applebee’s. The wood-fired kebabs that came in second place also made use of the new grills.

All of this fosters a fun, camaraderie-filled atmosphere for Applebee’s employees. “There’s a lot of activity in the stores in the 30 to 45 days the process lasts, and much enthusiasm and discussion leading up to the finals competition,” Warden says. “Everyone gets involved.” 

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Finalists also get to share their inspiration, personal stories, traditions, and family histories during the questioning phase of the competition, which boosts staff morale even higher. For example, the 2015 winner, Maria Rivera of Aberdeen, Maryland, created chicken enchiladas that blended her mother’s recipe with Applebee’s ingredients. She told the judges that her mother made this meal with love for her—and Rivera made it with love for the judges and her fellow staff.

You’d think it would be difficult getting corporate on board for something so far beyond what the restaurant usually does, but Warden says Applebee’s executives were enthusiastic from the start. In fact, executives including the Applebee’s corporate chef and a vice president, have flown out from the Glendale, California, headquarters to help judge the Top Apple Chef Finals. “They’ve always been very supportive,” says Warden. He adds that there hasn’t been a single year when Applebee’s corporate executives haven’t been represented on the judging panel. 

Warden points out that competitions like this are very scalable. The Rose Group does it with 56 restaurants spanning Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware, so, he says, “It would require different logistics, but Applebee’s could possibly roll it out company-wide. I believe it’s under consideration.” 

Applebee’s corporate was right to embrace the Top Apple Chef Competition. With the local movement stronger than ever, events like these appeal to the restaurants’ local communities. The Rose Group sends out press releases to regional news outlets, which often cover the competition and the winners. For example, when Alex Castelan won the Top Apple Chef title this year for his Butcher’s Steak Salad, the news appeared in The Reading Eagle, The Standard-Speaker, and Lehigh Valley Live.

While the winning dishes don’t appear on the restaurants’ menus, each store, and the judges, receive a bound book that contains all 56 recipes plus the cost breakdowns. “The idea is to provide inspiration for Applebee’s. I know it helps inspire them, and I can tell you that similar items have shown up on the menus,” Warden says. “With this competition, we prove the point that we don’t need to bring in lots of new ingredients.”

Instead, all The Rose Group needed was to show its staff that it’s OK to improvise. And the results were excitement in the community, pumped-up employees, and fresh new ideas.