Applebee's Used To Have A Way More Whimsical Name

There was a moment in a recent season of Survivor (U.S.) where host Jeff Probst revealed to contestants — who were competing for a million dollars — that they had a chance to win ... food from Applebee's (via YouTube). The survivors immediately began screaming in delight while physically celebrating. "I love Applebee's!" exclaimed one contestant as others moaned, "Oh my god!" Probst described the meal, and survivors acted as if the host handed them the cash prize right then and there. Were they just hungry, given the scarcity of food on the show? Were they playing things up for the cameras, eager to make producers happy? Or do Americans really love Applebee's that much?

Given the success of Applebee's Neighborhood Grill + Bar in the United States, this seems to have been a genuine reaction. According to Nation's Restaurant News, Applebee's is the biggest U.S. casual-dining chain. Plus, a whopping 97% of Americans have heard of the chain, per YouGov. That awareness makes sense, as Applebee's has over 1,000 locations in the United States, as documented by Statista. This extends worldwide, also. Selling burgers, pasta, salads, and more enables Applebee's to make billions of dollars in annual sales.

Have you ever wondered, though, what exactly is Applebee's, the thing people apparently go crazy for? And we don't mean the American cuisine or the chain itself. We mean "Applebee's." Who or what is Applebee and where did that name come from?

Applebee's was what the doctor ordered

"Applebee's" has always been a part of the chain's name, but "Neighborhood Grill + Bar" was a later addition. When Bill and TJ Palmer created Applebee's back in 1980, it was instead whimsically called "TJ Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs." Let's break this moniker down. "TJ" obviously refers to TJ Palmer, one of the company's founders. "Applebee's" has two possible origins. First, as noted by the Dictionary, an "apple bee" can refer to a New England get-together where apples are made ready to dry; this might seem random, but the food connection is there. Second, per Ancestry, the similarly spelled "Appleby" is an English surname with Norse roots; "Applebee's" is tellingly possessive, so it seems possible "Applebee" or "Appleby" was perhaps TJ's maiden name, but there doesn't seem to be a record proving such an assumption.

At least, with the rest of the name, we can be more certain of what's going on. Per Merriam-Webster, "Rx" refers to a doctor's prescription. Although "edibles" can sometimes refer to medicinal marijuana nowadays, Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the War on Drugs was at its height in the '80s, so this more likely just referred to food. "Elixirs," for those who don't know, can be sweet medical concoctions that prolong life (per Merriam-Webster). Presumably, "TJ Applebee" was a doctor — fictionally or factually — ordering customers to eat food that was "good" for them at their neighborhood grill and bar.

Names change and so does Applebee's

What happened to "Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs?" Applebee's states that the Palmers sold their food service concept to the W.R. Grace Company just three years after opening their first location. Then, another three years after that, in 1986, the new owners rebranded the business to "Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar." Like so many big companies these days, Applebee's has since changed hands several times, but the name stuck.

Speculatively speaking, Applebee's name could change again in the future, considering the chain is currently undergoing some tinkering. The company has grown a lot since its humble beginnings, but according to Statista, the pandemic naturally proved a setback to Applebee's. Sales diminished and many branches were closed, especially in foreign markets. In order to turn this around, it's trying to use curbside pickup, server tablets, tableside payments, and Wi-Fi to appeal to modern diners. It's even added drive-thru lanes, per Eater, dipping into fast food territory. Yet, as foodflation increased during 2022, Insider reported that Applebee's was losing lower-income customers while gaining higher-income ones, thus keeping some air of fanciness attached to its name (even if it's actually based in frugality). Meanwhile, in order to attract the youth, Applebee's is rebranding its music.

Will the name change again to reflect these developments? "Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs" is probably too old-timey to bring back, and "Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar" is a classic at this point. Still, there's always room for improvement!