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The Fast Foodist: Applebee’s aims to win over the cool crowd with its Cheetos-flavored boneless wings

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When you enter your favorite restaurant chain, don’t be surprised if it feels like you’ve also entered your favorite convenience store or supermarket.

How else to explain the slew of cross promotions we’ve seen in recent years between dining chains and the various snack brands that dominate store shelves? Taco Bell
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has its Doritos Locos Tacos. McDonald’s
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has its McFlurry ice-cream treat with Oreos
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or M&M’s mix-ins. And now, Applebee’s has what it calls a “Cheetos-inspired menu” — specifically, boneless wings or cheese bites covered in your choice of two types of Cheetos sauces (regular or Flamin’ Hot).

The idea, restaurant-industry experts say, is simple: By partnering with a snack-food brand, particularly a highly popular or buzzworthy one, a dining chain can potentially entice some of that brand’s fan base to eat at one of its locations. “You tap into those folks,” says Dan A. Rowe, chief executive of Fransmart, a franchise-development company that works with restaurants.

And in a broader sense, the chain can attach some of the snack-y buzz to its own identity.

I couldn’t help but think the latter idea had to be foremost in the minds of executives with Dine Brands
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the parent company of Applebee’s. Applebee’s may have its share of fans: It ranks among the top 25 restaurant chains in the U.S., according to the annual survey by market researcher Technomic, and has enjoyed robust sales of late, including a solid third quarter, as it emerges from the darkest days of the pandemic. But I’d hardly call Applebee’s a brand with a contemporary or cutting-edge sensibility. It’s more of a suburban-minded, take-your-family-for-a-simple-dinner place, as exemplified by how it was portrayed, with mocking affection, in the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights.”

Cheetos, on the other hand, is about as hip as a snack food gets, especially for its Flamin’ Hot version, which has been celebrated in rap songs, TikTok videos and even clothing items. In other words, Cheetos, which is part of PepsiCo’s
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Frito-Lay division, has the street cred that Applebee’s lacks. It’s “the Red Bull of snack foods,” says Thomas Donohoe, a veteran marketing consultant.

Normally, I might be cynical about a restaurant chain’s efforts to suddenly make inroads with the cool crowd. (To wit: I’m not a fan of “celebrity meal” promotions, a la the recent McDonald’s / Saweetie one.) But I have to say: Those Cheetos boneless wings are pretty tasty.

“Cheetos are “the Red Bull of snack foods.””


— Thomas Donohoe, veteran marketing consultant

I ordered the wings earlier this week to be delivered to my New York City home and found they fulfilled their essential promise. These are Applebee’s fairly meaty tenders — need I remind you, there’s no such thing as a boneless “wing” — with a sauce that has the cheesy zest of, yes, Cheetos (and some added crunch by way of actual Cheetos pieces). The Flamin’ Hot ones have the requisite kick, though I actually wish they were slightly spicier, as their admittedly unnatural deep-red color suggests.

The items also represent a relatively good value: I paid $12.99 for an order of 10, which is easily shareable as an appetizer. (In markets outside New York City, pricing can be as low as $9.99.) And trust me, for the sake of your waistline, you really don’t want to consume a full order, which packs 1,150 calories (and that’s before you start dipping the wings into the provided bleu-cheese or ranch sauce). I suppose you could offset some of your guilt by munching on the celery sticks that come with the wings, but my local Applebee’s failed to include them with my order, saying they had run out of the veggies. (Applebee’s officials assured me there isn’t a chainwide celery shortage, however.)

There may be reasons beyond the Cheetos buzz for Applebee’s to add the new menu items, which are limited-time offerings. Eric Gonzalez, an analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets who tracks restaurant companies, says it’s a way for the chain to distinguish itself from such wing-centric competitors as Buffalo Wild Wings and Atomic Wings. “There are a lot of wings out there,” he says.

Applebee’s officials also note that the Cheetos wings, while seemingly new, have actually been on the menu of its Cosmic Wings brand, a ghost-kitchen concept run out of Applebee’s restaurants, since early this year. Which means Applebee’s is basically leveraging a delivery-only item — and one that has proved popular with consumers, they note — by making it part of the company’s larger footprint.

Applebee’s Chief Marketing Officer Joel Yashinsky also doesn’t deny that the Cheetos items play to a younger market, though he thinks they appeal to all ages. “We saw an opportunity to speak to everyone with this idea,” he said.

Still, I can’t help but question if this attempt by Applebee’s reeks of a little desperation. It’s a gimmick, after all. One wonders what’s next on chain menus: Pringles in your burger? (Actually, that already sorta exists.)

Either way, it’s hard to imagine a day when Applebee’s will be seen as the hip-and-happening place to dine — it’s just not in the chain’s DNA. But I’d gladly order those Cheetos boneless wings again. Maybe even for dinner tonight.

The Fast Foodist is a new MarketWatch column that looks at restaurant menu items through a critical and business-minded lens. Send suggestions of products that you think should be critiqued to [email protected].

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