Applebee's focus on comfort food made last year its best since 1993.
The company's sales at US stores open at least a year grew 5% in 2018, a "milestone," Applebee's president John Cywinski said Thursday.
"We've got a brand with a history that people love and we've returned to its roots, which is what people wanted us to do," said Stephen Joyce, CEO of Dine Brands, which owns Applebee's.
"Eatin' Good drives our strategy," Cywinski said on a call with analysts. He added that last year, Applebee's achieved success similar to its "heyday," and he said that customers got "a terrific 1 hour, 1.5-hour experience." Applebee's reached an all-time high on its overall guest satisfaction scores last year.
Cywinski became president of the brand in March 2017, and has turned around the fast-casual restaurant chain by focusing on Applebee's as a place for inexpensive indulgence.
"Americans are stressed," Cywinski told CNN Business in November . "When stressed, they tend to go to comfort food ... and we're pretty darn good at comfort food," he said at the time.
In 2018, it ran promotions for all-you-can-eat riblets, chicken tenders and shrimp, and it sold a range of cheesy pastas. The brand also sold $1 cocktails to help customers celebrate Mardis Gras, the December holidays and Halloween, among other occasions. Plus, Applebee's invested in advertising that highlighted those comfort foods.
Before going back to its roots, Applebee's was struggling. A few years ago, the brand was selling seared and grilled items and serving smaller portions to chase a more health-conscious consumer. With these initiatives, the brand was targeting just a small segment of their customers.
The turnaround is inspiring confidence in investors. Shares of Dine Brand soared nearly 11% early Thursday.
IHOP, also owned by Dine Brands, had a good year too (though not as good as Applebee's). Sales at stores open a year or more grew 1.5% at IHOP in 2018.
Dine Brands said that both Applebee's and IHOP are resonating with most Americans.
"People feel for these brands," said Joyce, who added that they're "resonating with the 99% of the American public that we represent." About 60 million customers visit IHOP and Applebee's every year, he said. The company has about 1,900 Applebee's locations and roughly 1,800 IHOP restaurants.
Joyce added that Dine Brands restaurants "have never been run better," and that the corporate relationship with franchises is strong.
"I have been in this business for a long time, almost 40 years," he said. "And this is as good a situation as I have seen."