Elegy For The Applebee's Dollarita™

The perfect drink for millennials?

Image: Courtesy Applebee’s

Applebee’s announced at the end of September that throughout the month of October (Neighborhood Appreciation Month), it would offer $1 margaritas, or, Dollaritas™. (New York City locations were exempt from the promotion; margaritas in Times Square still cost $14.) In the company’s news release about the promotion, they stated that the intention behind it was to remind customers of their full name—Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar. A news item about it was posted in a leftist Facebook—or, Leftbook—offshoot group dedicated to discussing pop culture; the comments with the most likes were “millennial death trap” and “i wonder if i can find daddy at applebees AND get a cheap shitty margarita.” Millennials, it seems, find the idea of Dollaritas™ enticing but also absurd and funny.

Late night confession from an Applebee's bartender. #dollarita

Posted by Bitchy Waiter on Friday, October 6, 2017

On October 6th, a week into the promotion, the Instagram account @bitchywaiter shared a series of now-deleted Snapchat videos by an Applebee’s bartender: the Dollarita™, they reveal, is one part cheap tequila, one part margarita mix, and three parts tap water. People Magazine shared the story with the headline, “Applebee’s Bartender Claims Their $1 Margaritas Are Mostly Water.” Twitter doesn’t seem to care—in the words of user @corey_amber, “‘This Dollarita tastes like shit’ First of all it costs a fucking dollar.”

High expectations on margarita quality are not the appeal here. Applebee’s, aggressively advertising the Dollarita™ promotion through social media (@hannahbomana: “So sick of applebees paid twit ads I reported one lol”), is making a bid for millennial attention that has little to do with the quality of their products—Applebee’s has tried that, and it didn’t work.

The company’s most recent attempt to appeal to the millennial market was described as follows by John Cywinski, the company’s brand president, in a call with investors:

Over the past few years, the brand’s 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. In my perspective, this pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests, as Applebee’s intentionally drifted from what I’ll call its ‘Middle America’ roots and its abundant value position. While we certainly hope to extend our reach, we can’t alienate Boomers or Gen-Xers in the process.

Apparently, Applebee’s had “given up on millennials.” This was a month before the announcement of the Dollarita™ promotion—so, maybe not so. Cheap alcoholic beverages advertised on social media certainly sounds like a reboot of the “clear pendulum swing towards millennials.” It’s just a very different tactic than the open-fire grills that drained Applebee’s coffers without yielding the kind of foody cred they were hoping for.

Like many a promo before it, the Dollarita™ capitalizes on the time-honored idea that if you get them in the door with one super-cheap item, they will buy more, and come to love you. But the humor of the Dollarita™ can’t be lost on Applebee’s, either: the chain knows it isn’t usually considered a bar, and it knows millennials aren’t impressed with it as a restaurant. To go to Applebee’s for a margarita is a humorous novelty—both because it is serving margaritas, and because it is Applebee’s.

This novelty has spawned photos, articles, and posts in Facebook groups on pop culture. It is, in effect, “memey”—shareable, accessible (what is ONE DOLLAR these days?!), a little nihilistically stupid. Using the internet’s enthusiasm for and rapid circulation of the meme-worthy might be effective—where half-cooked attempts at artisanal flopped—at getting Applebee’s into the good graces of the youth.

Wendy’s and, particularly, Burger King are notorious for tweeting questionably food-related quips as well as more standard promotional info. They get into Twitter fights; they engage with one another and with customers; the corporate monoliths are, absurdly, transformed into internet-savvy individuals. Of course, there is an individual behind these tweets, and part of the appeal is that the veil of the mega-corporation seems to have lifted to reveal some kind of human heart. But the fact of the corporate monolith remains, and the dissonance between a little nameless human and the power that comes from tweeting to the corporation’s entire fan base is delightfully appealing.

Applebee’s, as Cywinski observed, doesn’t have the kind of cohesive, monolithic corporate identity represented by Wendy’s and even the struggling Burger King. It has 624,000 Twitter followers to Burger King’s 1.57 million and Wendy’s 2.08 million. It can’t quite access the kind of dissonance its competitors have tapped into, between the sassy “individual” voice and the neutral corporate face, because it doesn’t really have a recognizable corporate persona

The Dollarita™ is Applebee’s perfect solution to a meme-ified advertising ploy because it capitalizes exactly on the company’s lack of recognizable corporate identity—it is the randomness of going to the fast-casual restaurant your midwestern uncle frequents to get drunk that is so appealing, so shareable, so nihilistic. Find the cheap alcohol—regardless of the strength of the drink, regardless of the flavor, regardless of the ambiance it comes along with. Take a friend and drown your sorrows about the inability of late stage capitalism to create happiness or sustainable meaning!

It remains to be seen whether or not the promotion, coming to a close today, will have a lasting effect on Applebee’s success with millennial clientele. If it capitalizes on the relative obscurity of the company’s brand, it is unclear whether it simultaneously builds that brand identity. Whether or not the promotion will have any lasting effect on Applebee’s success may depend on how deep the company is willing to go down the meme rabbit hole, on whether the Dollarita™ is a charming but obscure advertising foray or the beginning of a strategic memeification of the company itself.


Nora Battelle is The Awl’s Fall Intern.