National Burger Month doesn’t start until Friday but Applebee’s, the nation’s largest casual-dining chain, can’t wait. It’s moving burgers–branded as “Realburgers”–front and center on its menu and unleashing new marketing for what it’s positioning as “the best new burger on the block.”
Three of the five Realburgers are new menu additions, and four of the burgers are priced at less that $9 (though prices may vary by location). The clear centerpiece is the beefy, new A.1. Steakhouse Burger, which borrows a term Burger King also has been using for oversized burgers. Applebee’s version is topped with cracked peppercorns and seasonings, A.1. Steak Sauce, crispy fried onion strings, melted Jack cheese and mayo. It’s menu priced at $8.99.
The most expensive ($9.59) and most ambitious Realburger is the Surf ‘N Turf, topped with grilled, seasoned shrimp (casual-dining chains love shrimp, but on a burger?), Italian cheeses and grilled onions. The other new Realburger is the $8.29 Fire Pit Bacon Burger, topped with pepper-Jack cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and “spicy chipotle spread.”
Previously on the Applebee’s menu but included among the Realburgers are the Quesadilla Burger (with pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and Mexi-ranch sauce and served in a folded quesadilla) and the Cowboy Burger (with a fried onion ring, honey-barbecue sauce, Jack and Cheddar cheeses, and applewood-smoked bacon).
DineEquity–also the parent of IHOP, which acquired Applebee’s in 2007–has been scrambling to rebuild Applebee’s bottom line for two years. The “It’s a Whole New Neighborhood” marketing effort has sought to graft a more youthful image on the 2,000-unit chain, but the economic downturn has been brutal on many mid-price concepts. For 2008, Applebee’s same-store sales were down 2.2% (and off 4.6% in last year’s fourth quarter). DineEquity’s 2009 guidance for Wall Street has been to forecast an additional -2% to -5% decline in same-store sales this year.