Monday, February 18, 2019

Applebee's Month: 2017 revisited

In 2016, we visited a bar in every state, and we scoffed at the idea of walking into any Applebee's because, well, it’s a national chain. We wanted to go to places that were unique to the state or the town we were visiting. Since the ‘Bee was the subject of such scorn that year, it seemed only to spend a month visiting our local Applebee's during February 2017. As we move all the bar posts here to, we're consolidating that whole month into one post. What do you think?

Applebee's Month
On our quest to visit a church and a bar in every state last year, we were amazed by how many times the name “Applebee’s” came up. At the very first bar last year (at Aureole in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas), Dave the bartender told us that his second bartending job was at Applebee's. He some praise for their good, consistent product, but he did say there wasn’t much room for self-expression.

We talked to people in other bars who praised local bars with local character but spoke disdainfully of bars in national chain restaurants, often mentioning Applebee’s specifically. We were sympathetic to that attitude. We wanted to get local flavor at the bars we visited throughout the United States.

At times while visiting churches, we asked about bars in the area. On a number of occasions, people told us, “I think there’s a bar at the Applebee’s.” We made a firm decision that we wouldn’t go to an Applebee’s bar while we traveled across the country, and we never ate at Applebee’s on the trip. (We did drive by Applebee’s headquarters in Kansas City, MO, but we weren't able to get pictures.)

We decided to give Applebee’s a break. A little research showed that there are four Applebee’s in the Fresno area (including one in nearby Clovis), so we decided to make February Applebee’s Month at Dean and Mindy Walk Into a Bar. To make things fun, we decided to order the same two drinks every time.

Applebee's on North Cedar, Fresno
This week we went to the Applebee’s on North Cedar, which is very near the Fresno State University (or more properly, California State University, Fresno) campus. Verging on irony is the fact that we avoided going to Applebee’s because we wanted to go to neighborhood bars -- and Applebee’s call themselves a “Neighborhood Grill and Bar.” Anyway, the restaurants’ decor is often customized to the location.

At the Cedar Avenue Applebee’s, there’s a sign acknowledging that we’re in Fresno over the entrance, and there are decorations throughout saluting the city and the Bulldogs (Fresno State's mascot). This is all very helpful if you're fuzzy on what city you're in.

Since we’d heard people talk about how consistent Applebee’s drinks are, we decided to order the same two drinks throughout our Applebee’s month. A friend from Healdsburg (hi Sara!) told Mindy she needed to try a Mudslide, and Mindy doesn’t need her arm twisted too hard to order chocolate. The Long Island Ice Tea was quite cheap during Happy Hour, so that’s what I chose. We plan to stick with these two drinks, which were pleasant, and we’ll let you know how consistent they are throughout the month.

We noticed people of a variety of ages in the restaurant, which wasn’t terribly busy on a Thursday evening. There were maybe half a dozen others at the bar with more at the surrounding tables. Behind us, a group of young to middle-aged women discussed the current season of The Bachelor. (“Don’t say too much, I’m a couple of episodes behind.” I could understand that. I’m way behind myself. I’ve never seen an episode.)

I usually mention that we ask two questions at bars. Actually, we ask three. Before we ask, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether or not you go, what do you think makes for a good church?” we ask, “What name should we use for the bar post? You can lie if you don’t want your real name used.” The bartender took us up on this and gave us an alias in honor of a relative, “Paisley Rose.”

Paisley’s answer to what makes for a good bar was initially one word, “Service.” She expanded on this, explaining when she says service she’s including such things as “how often they check on you, also how much they know, but service over everything.” Paisley said she does go to bars and she’s happy to pay more for good service. She said noticed that though Applebee’s has a Happy Hour with discounted drinks, there are people who will come in and order draft beers that aren’t discounted -- so for some people, it seems that price isn’t a deciding factor in their bar choices.

At this point, our conversation got off onto a tangent about beer, because Paisley says she hasn’t developed a taste for it. She wondered if she would sometime acquire a beer taste. We bonded with her over this, as fellow beer disdainers. We agreed that cider is a good alternative, but it is difficult, at times, to drink with others when beer is the beverage of choice for the majority.

We asked her what makes for a good church, and she admitted that she doesn’t go to church anymore, but she used to. “When I went, I felt like no matter what kind [of church] I went to, it had cliques. I’d like it if they didn’t have cliques at all, that would be good.” She told us about a church where the pastor took people skating, which she thought was nice, “but still there were cliques of who went and who didn’t go.”

Two men were sitting next to us at the bar, Anthony and Jeremy. We weren’t surprised to hear that Jeremy had worked at this Applebee’s in the past, because of the familial relationship he seemed to have with the staff. They were willing to answer our three questions (though they didn’t take up the option of the aliases).

Anthony answered first, mentioning that they had just been talking about a recent trip to San Diego and what they’d liked about places they visited down there. For him, what makes a good bar is “atmosphere and people, ambiance. An empty bar is just sad.”  He appreciates “the energy of friends.”

Jeremy said he had “a similar answer: community. I admire bars that are like Cheers. I prefer places that are chillaxed.”  

Jeremy was the first to answer about what makes for a good church, using the word he’d used for bars, “community.” He said he prefers a smaller congregation with around fifty people rather than a “super church.”  Jeremy admitted he didn’t go much to church much anymore, “I should.”

Anthony said, “I hate to cop out, but I’ll answer like him.”  He also preferred small churches and a sense of community.

We had a good time in the Applebee’s neighborhood. We’ll see how different the experience is during each of the next three weeks. Perhaps it will be so consistent we can copy and paste this same post throughout the month and just change the address and the names. But I don’t think that will happen.

Applebees on Shaw, Fresno
I was heartened to see the bartender wearing the number 16 on his jersey. Superbowl LI was about to begin, and one of the big storylines leading up to the game was whether Tom Brady would lead the Patriots to a fifth victory, cementing the title of the greatest quarterback of all time for himself. Jarred the bartender was wearing the jersey of the true greatest quarterback of all time.

Mindy and I recently moved back to Fresno after 27 years away. When we lived here before, we watched the 1990 Super Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers humiliated the Denver Broncos, with Joe Montana leading his team to an amazing victory. Our son was born a few days later, and we gave him the middle name Montana in honor of the greatest quarterback of all time. So I appreciated the bartender wearing Montana’s shirt. This was our second visit to Applebee’s, and we went to the Applebee’s on Shaw Avenue in Fresno.

We were concerned before we arrived about how crowded the place would be, what with the Superbowl and all. We wondered whether there would be room for us to sit at the bar. We were happy to find there were some people at the bar, but still plenty of seats. We sat next to Ben, who was wearing a Patriots jersey, who was cheering for the Patriots, and of course, had money on the game.

It was fun to listen to cheers and boos as the game went on. There seemed to be an equal number of Patriots and Falcons fans, but none seemed too adamant. Even though the two teams are on the other side of the country from Fresno, everyone at the bar apparently felt the need to pick a favorite for the day. The commercials occasionally got a bigger response. Frankly, I was surprised that there was any room in the world with so much enthusiasm for another Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers sequel (about Transformers: The Last Knight someone said, “Man, that looks tight!”).

We ordered the same two drinks we ordered at Applebee’s last week: a Mudslide and a Long Island Ice Tea. We’d heard from more than one bartender that there is a remarkable consistency in the preparation of drinks at Applebee’s, but though both drinks were tasty, the Long Island Ice Tea looked a lot less dark than last time. We’d heard from people to watch out for both of our drink choices for the month. We’d been told they contained deceptively large amounts of alcohol. So far this month, we haven’t found this to be true. The two Applebee’s we've visited so far don’t seem to use a heavy pour.

Since we planned on staying for the whole first half of the game, we ordered some food to go with our drinks -- Boneless Buffalo Wings and Steak Quesadillas (from New York to south of the border, North America was represented on the plates).

Ben next to us didn’t seem like the way the game was going during the first half. The Pats were losing by 25 points, and in Superbowl history no team had ever come back from more than a ten point deficit. He was willing to answer the two questions we always ask in bars, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?”

Ben said a good bar depends on “the bartender and how attentive they are to their people. And good company.” When asked about what made for a good church, he gave a name, “Ed Rea, write that down. He’s the pastor of Calvary Chapel. I’ve never known a man who knew better how to preach the Bible. The thing about churches is they shouldn’t be shoving the Bible down your throats but teaching the Bible verse by verse.”

Across the bar, I noticed a woman drinking a drink with technology. We were curious, so she told us she was drinking a Coronarita. It’s served in a huge margarita glass with a device for inserting a Corona bottle upside down. I asked if we could take a picture of her drink for our blog, and she agreed. We introduced ourselves and learned her name was April. She also agreed to let us ask her our questions.

I told her both questions in advance, and she quickly answered, “People and people.” People make for a good bar, and people make for a good church. But for a bar, she also stressed the importance of atmosphere and ambiance, and she does like this Applebee’s. She likes the staff at this Applebee’s, especially Jarred the bartender. She lives nearby, so this is her neighborhood bar.

She said that her church has three services, and she prefers to go to the one in the evening because there are fewer people that service, so everyone greets everyone who’s there. It’s a more casual and social time.

Half time was coming, and I can’t say we were excited about the Lady Gaga halftime show. With 25 points separating the teams, there obviously no more of a game left. We could leave knowing that crock of Tom Brady claiming to be the best quarterback of all time was dead.

Applebee’s on Friant Road, Fresno
When I worked at a hotel with a restaurant, I used to talk to the wait and kitchen staff about the best times to go out to eat. They all agreed there were two days one should not go:  Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Even in the best of establishments, the influx of diners means the quality of service will go down, the prices may well go up, and there’s even the chance of the kitchen running out of menu items. The wait staff I’ve known also complained about “amateur diners” who only go out on those special days, slowing the evening for everyone as they puzzled as if the menus were cryptograms. (And even worse in the staff’s opinion, amateur diners are lousy tippers.)

With this in mind, we went to Applebee's on Valentine’s Day.
As we drove, Mindy was getting directions to the third Applebee’s we’ve visited this month. (Having avoided Applebee’s all last year while we were visiting bars in every state, we decided to devote February to the bars at the ‘Bee’s.) Her phone was telling her there was a traffic situation we’d have to work around.

As we pulled up to the restaurant and began taking our outside photos, we noticed a television news vehicle near the front door. I wondered if they were doing a human interest story about Applebee’s on Valentine’s Day, which might be interesting to learn more about.

That was not the case. As we approached the front door, we saw police vehicles in the street and professional-looking photographers (they had tripods!) on the sidewalk, so we knew something else was up. Mindy asked one of the police officers standing in the parking lot what was happening. He said he’d heard there was a “domestic disturbance.” Inside we heard some discussion among the Applebee’s staff who'd heard stories about a stabbing across the street. (Which apparently was closer to the truth). All in all, it seemed to be an event that didn’t fit the theme of the day.

We’d expected that talking to people and asking our usual questions would probably be challenging on Valentine’s Day. Couples probably wouldn’t want to talk to us, and if there were single people, they probably wouldn’t want to talk to a married couple who, after thirty years, can still be nauseatingly gooey with each other. (As a single woman at the bar proclaimed, “It’s not Valentine’s Day, it’s Singleness Awareness Day. I saw that on Facebook.”)

Still, when we got inside, we saw tables with families and tables with couples, but the bar didn’t have many potential folks for chatting with. Right after we sat down, the other three people at the bar left.

Fortunately, the two women (Kourtney and Candis) tending bar that night were friendly. We were served our two drinks. (We’re ordering a Long Island Ice Tea and a Mudslide every week through Applebee's month.) From our unscientific observations, this week’s drinks seemed to have more alcohol in them than the past couple weeks.)

Kourtney and Candis were happy to have snagged some Hershey’s Kisses. Apparently the week before, they had missed out on candy -- and everyone knows that Valentine’s candy is tastier than ordinary candy. (By the way, two of my favorite Holidays are November 1st and February 15th, Cheap Candy Days.)

I asked Kourtney how it was to work Valentine’s. She said it was generally one of the three busiest days of the year (Mother’s Day and Veteran’s Day are the other two). I asked her about Veteran’s Day;  she explained that Applebee’s gives veterans free meals on their day. She said the day of the week a holiday falls on makes a difference (though, of course, Mother’s Day is always on Sunday, so brunch/lunch is always a nightmare...not her words). She said if Valentine’s falls on a Friday or Saturday, they get slammed. But since this Valentine’s was on a Tuesday she said, “When I came in it looked busy like a Friday. But a lot more couples, more two tops.”

We told Kourtney about our blog, and she was willing to answer our two standard questions. She said, “Friendly staff, good happy hour” makes for a good bar, and it was a real plus if there were “good sports on TV.” On the “what makes for a good church?” question, she said, “I have gone to church my entire life.” She had high praise for the current pastor of her church. She said he was very personable and knows “every single person” by name. He has a good sense of humor, calling the choir in their red robes during the weeks prior to the Super Bowl, “the Red Zone.”  He “keeps it lively, keeps your attention,” Kourtney said.  

She said she also appreciates her church’s “good sense of community.” She mentioned how the church recently bought a new refrigerator for someone in the church who needed one, and how they were helping another family in the concrete business through the rainy season. “It’s good knowing the money isn’t all going straight into the pastor’s pocket but is going to the community.”

The other bartender, Candis, said she didn’t go to bars very often (she was, in fact, pitching in behind the bar that night instead of waiting tables because someone had called in sick). She was still willing to answer our questions and said the important thing for a good bar was the “atmosphere.” She can be uncomfortable going in a bar, so she appreciates a place that is “friendly, fun, warm with a comfortable feeling.” She said she doesn’t go to church very often either, but it is important to her that a church be friendly and welcoming as well. She recalled a time that she went to a church that had a great choir that drew her (and everyone else) in, making her want to sing along.

It was nice to meet such “sweethearts” behind the bar (I’ll be interested to see whether this term will make it past Mindy’s editing, but it seemed to fit the theme of the day) [now I have to leave it, I guess -- ed], who made our evening a pleasant one. And though we didn’t eat at Applebee’s that evening, we were happy to see that there wasn’t too big of a Valentine’s crowd at Arby’s. We had a coupon.

Applebee’s, Clovis
Why do people have to work on December 6th? After all, it’s Bartender Appreciation Day. Giving people that day off makes as much sense as everyone getting President’s Day off. Understand, having the day off made sense when people were celebrating Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays. Those were great men.

But does it make sense to have a day to celebrate Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome Scandal? William Henry Harrison might have been wonderful, if his presidency had lasted longer than 30 days -- and he gets a holiday? I’m sure if you think hard, you might be able to think of a recent (or current) President that you’d rather not celebrate.

And really, Presidents get plenty of perks as it is. The chief executive currently gets $400,000 a year for salary, a $50,000 expense account, a $100,000 travel account and $19,000 for “entertaining.” I know for some this is a pay cut, but most of us could figure out a way to squeak by on that. And when Presidents get out of office, they can charge a million for a speech.

I’d argue that a number of bartenders have brought more joy into the world than a number of Presidents. And some bartenders could really use armed guards, but they are not supplied.

I bring all this up because we went to our final Fresno-area Applebee’s on President’s Day. We had already gone to all the Applebee’s in Fresno, but Clovis is right next door -- a slightly posher Fresno, if you will. (Th terms may have a slightly different meaning in the Central Valley -- among Clovis’ claims to fame is their annual rodeo.)

As we sat down at the bar, we noticed a table of men who seemed to have already enjoyed several rounds of adult beverages, but there was still a call from someone at the table for “another round, barkeep!” People seemed to be enjoying their day off. I heard someone say, “Tomorrow will be like a Monday.”

On one of the big screen TVs, Bilbo Baggins seemed to be battling Smaug the Dragon. (I’m not sure which film in the Hobbit trilogy was playing, since I happily missed them all, though I loved the book.)

One of our goals this month was to gauge the consistency of the Applebee’s product, so we ordered our fourth Mudslide and our fourth Long Island Ice Tea of the month. For the first time, the bartender asked whether we wanted a big or a regular sized mudslide. Also for the first time, the bartender (thank you, Jamie!) made a little bit more ‘Slide than would comfortably fit in the glass, and she offered us the extra. We took it.

We were sitting near a couple enjoying their beers and each other's company, but they seemed willing to talk to us as well. I introduced Mindy and myself, and he introduced themselves as M & M. (I asked to clarify he was not saying “Eminem” but the candy was closer to what he was saying than the rapper.) He was Mike and she was Margie.

M & M seemed to be regulars of a sort at this Applebee’s -- they’d been coming since the year 2000. Mike felt that the place had lost a little through the years; it had become more and more “corporate.”

We asked them if we could ask what makes for a good bar and what makes for a good church. They jumped at the church question first. Mike said he used to go to church and that he is a Christian, but he has his own business and Sunday is the only day he has off. Margie grew up Catholic but now feels that church is just a building where people gather, and church can just as well be in your home.

As for what makes for a good bar, Mike said, “a real attentive bartender, friendly.”

Margie said, “For me, I like a full positive bar, full of people and full of energy. I don’t like a quiet bar.”

One of the employees seemed to be having a hard day, and a manager came alongside her and gave her a side hug. Melony, the manager, said that was the best part of her work, encouraging co-workers on a tough day. “There has to be fun and love when you come to work,” she said.

I guess we’re all looking for some fun and love wherever we go… Work, bars, churches. Just don’t expect it from your Presidents. You’ll too often be disappointed.

If you enjoyed this summary of February 2017's bar visits, you might also enjoy our book, Cheers and Amen. It's the story of our travels throughout the United States (visiting a church and a bar in every state) in 2016 -- during the Presidential campaign and election. Breaking our computer during our time on Long Island (chapter 8 in the book) delayed us, but we didn't have any of the island's iced tea that week. You can find the book at Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions.

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