Applebee's was a local Atlanta Restaurant Concept that has become an International Franchise through the growth and development of Applebee's International. Today there are more than 1900 locations throughout the US and Europe. The Restaurants' original name was "TJ Applebee's Edibles and Elixirs."
The historical period covered in this article will be from April 1980, when we bought into the Billy's Restaurant Concept until the present year of 2006. I will take you through the business aspects as well as my personal "life learning" experiences.
I have always been asked what led to the Applebee's concept and how did it get its name. Here is the answer for all that still want to know.
In 1980, before T J Applebee's, my partner (and husband at the time), Bill Palmer and I bought into a concept known as "BILLY'S". Billy's was a restaurant concept founded by Billy Watson, a very colorful Atlantan. He was in the Atlanta news often, sometimes good, sometimes bad, which gave his restaurants a lot of publicity. Everyone knew of "BILLY'S" in Buckhead. This was supposed to be one of the most popular places to frequent in Atlanta. Great fun, music, drinking, and eating! This is what the 20 and 30 something's did in those days.
Previously, Bill Palmer had been employed by Burger King as a Franchise District Manager. Burger King had decided that it was time for a transfer to either California or Miami. Being from the south and not wanting to leave my Atlanta, I refused to move. Obviously Bill didn't want to move either. He became very disinterested in making money for a large corporation instead of himself. He was constantly complaining to me about how much money he had made for Burger King. It became a pain to listen to this constant complaint. I told him that if he hated it so much, just quit. Eventually he did. He resigned.
We talked about having a dine in restaurant: a fun place that served spirits as well as food. He took me to Billy's in Buckhead. I wasn't exactly thrilled watching all the servers in their shorter than short shorts...shorts and skin tight low cut T shirts. To top it off, the shorts had Billy's stamped on the back end. In reflection, it was quiet like Hooter's.
Billy Watson had leased his restaurants to three people: Wally Doolin, Eric Gongalac, and "Freddie" from Iran. I can't remember his last name. We met these guys, got a tour of the kitchen, and sampled the food. A few days later we met them at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Billy's to discuss our interest. They wined and dined Bill and gave him the "Billy's" van to drive around in for a while. Bill was taken by this gesture.
After this meeting, we decided to venture out on our own. We took out a home improvement loan for $20,000 from Nations Bank (known as C&S) and bought into this local restaurant. "Billy's" on Savoy Drive had the lowest sales of the three Billy's Restaurants. The owners, having recently purchased this location and leased the name "BILLY'S", agreed to sell fifty percent of this store to us. According to Bill the restaurant was filthy. The dishwasher was running with cold water only. Can you imagine the germs? Bill put so much time and energy into improvements that within two months he had turned this location around to be the number one store of the three. He was so proud and I was proud of him. He was never home. He would always tell me that he was doing this for "us". Needless to say, the owners wanted their now #1 location back. In a very unprofessional manner they reclaimed the restaurant. One afternoon all three came in, took there coats off, and told Bill he would no longer be needed. After several days, they returned our money with a bad check. Three days later we were repaid in cash. I promptly repaid the bank. They never returned our promissory note, which Bill should have demanded immediately.
After this odd way of doing business, my then husband was very upset emotionally. He was devastated, crushed. He sat on the bed and cried. I tried to comfort him by telling him that we could start our own business, our own restaurant: what ever he wanted to do. He had such faith in the name "Billy's", like the only reason the restaurant was successful was due to the reputation of Billy Watson. I tried to convince him that I believed the name Billy's wasn't the money maker. We could come up with our own name. We could make it work! I was so mad that they had treated him this way but I didn't understand why he wanted to hang on to that one restaurant. I guess it was because it now had a special meaning in his life work. He decided that afternoon that he would look for a new site. Maybe at this point I was slightly naive. I had no fear. I believed in Bill, and myself. Failure never entered my mind because I had never known failure. As they say….What you don't know won't hurt you. I never doubted what Bill and I could accomplish together. We threw caution to the wind, as they say, and we took the risk.
While owning Billy's, Bill met with Bob McCurley and Earl Davis. These two owned a design company called Davis Designs. Their business supplied restaurant decor for Burger King and other fast food chains. Bill asked Bob and Earl to be partners with us in this restaurant venture. Their part would be to supply the decor for the first location. Bill also asked a friend of his and his wife to be partners. This was Frank and Wanda Wood. Frank would be part of the management team. Here were the original six people, the Applebee's Founders. Bob McCurley, Earl Davis, Frank Wood, Wanda Wood, "TJ" Palmer, and "the last man standing", Bill Palmer. I call him this because he is the last of the original six to be involved with Applebee's today.
For financing, we went to the Small Business Association. We took out a loan for $50,000.00. For collateral, I put up my personal property (a gift of land from my mother which our house sat on), Bob McCurley and Earl Davis put up their business property, Frank and Wanda Wood put up their residential property, and Bill put up his personal Guarantee. (Document shown)
The gift of property had been in my mother's family since the early 1700's. When her family came over from Ireland, there was a land lottery going on. Each male in the family received 1000 acres. The Couey family received 3000 acres in Gwinnett County. This was Indian territory. I received the last acre with a farm house that was built in 1860. We put the property up for collateral to build our house. At the closing, Bill had the bank lawyers draw up a document where I would be giving the property to him. For the first and only time in my life I refused to sign it. This created a pattern of Bill's future demands of my signing anything he put before me. He would always say to me "We don't have time for you to read it: Just sign it!"
The ownership in the corporation through stock was distributed in this manner:
Earl Davis received 125 shares, Bob McCurley received 125 shares, Frank and Wanda Wood together received 75 shares, Bill Palmer received 100 shares and I (now working in a mans' world) received 75 shares. The voting shares were distributed in other amounts to insure that the working partners would have the control of all decisions. My father, Sidney Griffin, held the liquor license in his name. He was also a voting board member. Each of us received one hundred votes. After the store opened, the Woods departed from the company. The restaurant was left up to Bill and myself to operate. Due to this fact, the others always voted the way we voted. They didn't want the burden of the day to day operation of the restaurant. With my fathers votes and ours, we had the controlling interest of the operation. Just a little note. When Frank left, he received less than $10,000.00 for their shares purchased by the company. Those 75 stock shares were split three ways. (All women excluded)
Bill, Frank, and I sat in the kitchen going through the phone book. Bill wanted the name "Appleby's" from the beginning but this name was taken according to Georgia State Incorporations. Just two weeks before I called the state to reserve the name, someone else had registered the name Appleby's. We had to do something to use the name Appleby's. My intent was to always make Bill happy.
I researched this to find out that a new restaurant was opening at Shannon Mall in South Atlanta under the name Appleby's. Next I tried the name Cinnamon's. It was taken too. I tried a third name, Peppers. It was also taken. I called the state and asked if I put initials in front of Applebys and changed the spelling would it be accepted? The state representative said yes so I reserved the name "T. J. Applebee's, Inc." (Of course at this point in our lives Bill liked the name "TJ". In fact, when the Tj was dropped, Bill told me that it was odd sounding as just "Applebee's".)
[Frank, one of the partners, wanted to have the initials WJ in the name, after his wife. Bill wanted to use TJ. He thought it had a better ring to it. That made me happy but this was short lived. During opening night, a customer met Bill and I and she said "How nice. You named it after your wife!" Bill spoke right up and said "NO! She had nothing to do with it. I pulled the name out of a hat." I was crushed. I can't explain how deep that went. It let me know that he didn't want to share any of Applebee's with me, be it success or failure. The whole night I fought to hold back the tears. I lost so much respect for him that night. I felt discriminated against for the first time in my life. This marked the very beginning of our downfall. Applebee's had already started going to his head. I was so hurt. It put a wall between us with that comment. From this day forward I felt like Applebee's was a McDonald's. When I went into one or drove past one, I had no feelings of ownership or connections. I felt like it was just a job. I felt like I was just an employee.]
I typed up our incorporation documents on an old typewriter that Bill must have had from grammar school. (That was the hard part.) I submitted the document to the State. I knew nothing at this point about how to incorporate. It was returned to me with some legal jargon that I didn't understand. I went to a legal bookstore, purchased a book on Georgia Incorporations and corrected my mistakes. After I received the accepted version back from the state, I drove to Atlanta and purchased our corporate book and seal from Georgia Seal and Stamp. The name was now a corporation.
For a trademark we needed a description as to what Applebee's was. I really didn't want the same ole grill and bar that everyone else used and Bill agreed. Elixirs came to mind instead of bar (or liquor) and Edibles instead of food or grill. Now we had the name "TJ Applebee's Edibles and Elixirs" with an apple as the apostrophe. Bill took the name to Davis Designs (Earl and Bob) and came up with that special script that you still see today. (Echmanshrift script)
I went to a lawyer to get the Applebee's trademark registered for use on the menu cover. At this time I also registered "TJ Applebee's" Nationally. This must have been my intuition telling me to do this but, for now, it was for protection. (One of the smartest things I have ever done.) I also registered the colors Red and Green. My partner had chosen the specific color numbers of red and green.
While I was at the lawyers office, I tried to call Bill. He was not at the new location working on the building. No one knew where he was. I did not want to make a move without consulting him on the national registration of the name and logo. I felt like I was stepping out on my own and I made the decision to pay to have this done. This lawyer also recommended his sisters printing company. I went there with all our menu information and decided to let her do our menu booklet. Then I took my son and we went over to the new location. To my surprise a Billy's server (Courtney) was there. Bill brought her along from Billy's to work with him in the store. He just didn't tell me about it. This is when I decided that now I was going to work inside the restaurant with Bill. I never had any intentions of working in the store until I saw that he had Courtney by his side. Many years later he confessed that she had tried to have an intimate relationship with him. I believed him.
While I was working on the legal issues, Bill was negotiating on a restaurant site. Within a weeks time from the termination with "Billy's", he had our first location. It was an old "Judy's" building located at 4705 Memorial Drive in Decatur, Ga. Bill Palmer and Davis Designs came up with the layout of the store with the unique octagon shaped bar, to be different from "Billy's". We opened the store with used kitchen equipment, that was replaced gradually with new, and $20,000 worth of inventory.
We wanted Applebee's to have the feel of an old drug store. I added in the "RX" meaning prescriptions for Edibles and Elixirs. We wanted an old wooden Indian holding cigars at the door just as drug stores had when we were children. In an antique store in Chamblee, Georgia, we found an old neon sign that said "prescriptions" and a neon sign that read "Candy Apples 5 cents". Bill wanted to use hot air balloons in our theme, also. We had a large stained glass piece consisting of hot air balloons made and placed in the back of the restaurant. Dana McCurley designed and created this piece as well as the stained glass over the bar. She drew the design for me on art paper and I made this the cover of our first menu. Refer back to the home page for more details on Dana.
We began working on the menu. Bill, Frank, Michael (a "Billy's" bartender), and I sat out at the pool thinking of menu items that were quick and easy. Things were simple then not formal. Bill wanted to offer a variety of "finger foods" as served in Billy's. That was the "in" thing in 80's. Chicken fingers, fried mushrooms, steak fries, onion rings, nachos (piled high), potato skins three different ways, burgers, soups, salads, even quiche made fresh every day became our menu. Some are still on the menu while others are long gone; Quail being one of them. The first time I saw this come out on a plate I said "What is that? It looks like a dead parakeet!" Today, Bill says that he made this remark. Regardless, the bird was totally embarrassing! (First Menu cover shown above)
The Poor House:
How did we survive during this construction phase? Bill's parents loaned us $2000.00 which I had to pay back monthly. My parents gave us $3200.00 with no questions asked. All of this was spent on food and house hold expenses. In secret, my parents even made two of the house payments. It was a scary time for me because we had a son three years old. My mother, Sybil Griffin, kept my son Shawn everyday from 7:30 AM until 10:30 PM from August 1980 until March 1981. I could not have participated in Applebee's without my mothers help. She was a Godsend. I only hope I can do the same for my son in the future.
After the store had been open for business for 30 days or so, I tried to get to the store by 8am and "Z" out the registers. That means get all the information about the previous days sales broken down into Liquor, beer, wine, and food sales individually. I would do the daily sales report, the bank deposit, liquor order, and be ready when the servers got there. This had been "C's" responsibility until I took it over. Bill would come in around 9 or 9:30. In the beginning we would both work until 10 or 11pm. Since "C" was there, I had this threat hanging over my head so I was afraid to leave the store. Later, after I fired her, I would leave after happy hour...around 8pm. Back when I discovered that "C" was working for us, I was told that she had to come from Billy's and work because she was the only one that knew how to do the daily sales report. I asked him to teach me how to do the "DSR" and he told me it was too hard for me to understand; that he didn't even know how to do it. You can imagine how I felt. Here I am with a college education. He was caught cheating off my Spanish Test in Spanish 101 and learning the DSR was too hard for me???!!! At lunch one day, I went back to the office and figured out the whole thing on my own. Frank came back, saw what I had done, went up front, and told Bill like I had done something fantastic. He no longer needed "C". Did he let her go? No. She remained for just a little longer.
In March my hours were not so late. I would pick my son up around 8 PM. On top of my hours at the restaurant, I would take care of payroll, payables, sales reports, bank accounts, anything that had to do with money. It wasn't that hard at this point. There was only one store. I even did tax returns for some of our employees after the lunch rush at the store. I loved working with numbers. I wasn't like Bill. I thought Bill was a genius with numbers but I had to use a calculator. This is how it "appeared" to me.