Given the toll COVID-19 has taken on restaurants, one can be forgiven for not noticing a closure. Especially when the restaurant in question has almost 2,000 replicas around the world.
When the Stadium Village Applebee’s at the University of Minnesota—the only Applebee’s in Minneapolis or St. Paul proper—shut down in October of 2020, nobody made a peep, save for this obscure Reddit thread. Even the now-razed Dinkytown McDonald’s received more eulogizing fanfare.
But, as I learned in a Twitter prompt for this story, the U’s Applebee’s means a lot of things to a lot of people. Its signature riblets may be long gone, but the memories—some sweet, some sad, some sexy, some sloppy—live on for multiple generations of Gopher grads.
“I think it’s so emotional or just impactful for so many for a few reasons,” says Liz Brooks, who worked as a host there in 2016. “The biggest being because it was just… always there. I mean sure, it’s a fucking Applebee’s, but they did half-price apps and cheap drinks, and I think that sustained a good portion of the student body. A lot of people drank or got drunk there for the first time. It really seemed to be a safe haven for a lot of the kids there.”
No Appetite for Applebee’s
For years, the U of M Applebee’s existed in something of a dining desert. You had Big 10, you had Stub & Herb’s, you had… not much else. “Being the only option when there isn’t much around is not that hard,” says former bartender Tino Luna, noting the recent proliferation of places like Noodles & Co., Raising Cane’s, and Chipotle.
“The Washington Avenue Applebee’s was a maverick,” says U of M grad Emma Molls. “It broke the rules about where a casual restaurant ought to be located.”
Sit-down casual dining chains like Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, and Olive Garden have been death rattling for some time now. In the aughts, eaters began favoring the convenience and prices of fast-casual operations like Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Panera. Applebee’s made an ill-fated pivot to coolness with chic décor and wonton tacos in the following decade, a move that President John Cywinski would quickly lament.
“Over the past few years, the brand set out to reposition or reinvent Applebee’s as a modern bar and grill in overt pursuit of a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing towards millennials,” Cywinski admitted to shareholders in 2017. “In my perspective, this pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests, as Applebee’s intentionally drifted from its—what I’ll call its Middle America roots.”
Thus, the elimination of underperforming restaurants in youthful, affluent, urban environs like a college campus. Applebee’s parent company, Dine Brands Global Inc., has eliminated hundreds of such Applebee’s and IHOPs in recent years. The company’s stock is down about 33% from the beginning of the pandemic, though some analysts are smitten with its big bets on “ghost kitchens.” (Applebee’s PR didn’t respond to our repeated requests for comment about the Stadium Village closure.)
Luna started tending bar at the Stadium Village Applebee’s in 2004, shortly after the location opened beneath the Graduate Hotel. While most Applebee’s half-heartedly lean into their suburban neighborhoods, décor-wise, the U’s went all out with a massive neon “M” and relentless Gopher memorabilia adorning the walls. Luna would serve drinks there for four years, and his close-knit coworkers from that era maintain a group chat called “The Applebuddies” to this day.
“I saw weird stuff, I saw raunchy stuff, I saw funny stuff… what are you looking for?” Luna says with a laugh. “There are probably R-rated stories that I’ve buried deep down in my brain and chosen to forget.”
Some activities were expected, like students gorging themselves on 2-4-1 apps and discount beers for literal hours on end. The men’s basketball team was famous for their heroic intake of both, Luna reports.
Others activities were unique to the location.
“Being attached to the hotel, business folks would come in and they’d leave their room keys for the bartenders and servers,” Luna says.
Adds Brooks: “Multiple times I saw under-the-table, ahem, sexual activity. This happened sometimes at night, sometimes in broad daylight.”
Eatin’ Good in Your Hometown Neighborhood
For students and parents coming from rural communities, the Stadium Village Applebee’s offered familiar, PG-13 comfort on the East Bank.
“That Applebee’s was like Cheers with a revolving cast,” says grad Tom Lally, who matriculated from suburban Chicago and slammed margs and wine there with his college speech team. “No Norm or Sam Malone, just a bar that felt like home in city that didn’t yet.”
Luna’s wife and her four sisters are from a small town, and he says they enjoyed Applebee’s with their parents during each of the respective freshman move-ins. When parents were on campus, either for move-in weekend or games, tipping improved greatly, he observes.
Being “from the sticks” of northern Wisconsin, Molls considered Applebee’s fine dining when she first arrived on campus in 2007. She dined there one night with her mom as a freshman, and family and college life collided as they watched a patron puke into his margarita glass.
“The kid turned white, then green, then subtly refilled his giant margarita glass with his own vomit,” Molls remembers. “He wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin and put it on top of the glass. The weirdest thing was he and his friend stayed, ate, and slowly left. I asked my mom this week if she remembered the margarita-puker at Applebee’s and she assured me, ‘I think about it all the time.'”
Given the cookie-cutter format, dining at any Applebee’s can be a balm for homesickness. Sensory transportation via mozzarella sticks.
“It’s a Friday night with family in Chicago, a Sunday in Omaha, a Tuesday in Puerto Rico,” Lally says, noting that he confirmed Applebee’s does, in fact, have eight Puerto Rican locations. “College can be scary, and having a familiar restaurant that feels like home can go a long way. It did for me.”