Applebee's: How much cooking goes on back there?

Not Books or Meth, I’ve heard rumors of lots of microwaves used to warm premade freeze-dried meals.

Obviously I’m hoping one of you responding worked there, or better yet, cooked there.

Most restaurants these days use a lot of pre-made items… if not exactly heat-n-serve, then pre-portioned, pre-seasoned and at least partially cooked. They do finish cooking, dress it, and serve it.

Chains are more likely to use this method, and smaller restaurants that have long menus of fancy entrees. It’s okay in some ways, but particularly for complex dishes (lasagna, seafood sauces) and fancy-prep beef (sliced tri tip, roast beef, Wellington) they can be as engineered and additive-laden as anything in a grocery freezer. The beef stuff often has that slightly gamy overtone if it’s not drowned in special sauce.

I started my cooking career at an Applebee’s. While it is basically the bottom tier of restaurants in terms of quality, they do actually prepare most of the dishes from basic elements (at least circa 1990). The only things that came prepared were the deep fried foods and soups. Everything was prepared from the corporate cuisine standard with no flexibility and the basic quality of the food (particularly proteins) was indifferent at best but it was prepared by actual cooks on a grill and oven, not part time high school students throwing frozen patties through a reheating oven.


I am friends with someone who waitressed at Applebee’s about five years ago. She said almost everything was pre-made and frozen, FWIW.

In my experience in working in a number of restaurants over a four year period, the waitstaff never voluntarily entered into the kitchen or had much of a clue what happened on the cooking side of the line.


At least in the Chili’s chain ca. 1989, just about everything was made from scratch, save buns and ground beef patties. They didn’t grind beef, make burger patties or bake bread, but they did do the following labor-intensive things which I’m sure some of which have changed (fries, for sure):
[li]Cleaned, cut and pre-fried the french fries (every morning), with a final crisp-up frying to order.[/li][li]Fried all the tortilla chips from corn tortillas every day.[/li][li]Fried all the taco shells from corn tortillas every day.[/li][li]Fried all the taco salad shells from tortillas (don’t recall what kind)[/li][li]Chopped heads of lettuce for salads every day.[/li][li]Chopped tomatoes, carrots, etc… for salads every day.[/li][li]Mixed the honey mustard dressing from Grey Poupon, Miracle Whip and honey[/li][li]Cooked chili from scratch once a week in about a 40 gallon quantity[/li][li]Smoked pork ribs once a week in an electric smoker that looked like R2D2.[/li][li]Mixed various other condiments and sauces weekly or daily.[/li][/ul]

We had a meat delivery (non-frozen from a local processor), a vegetable delivery and a bakery delivery every morning.

My uncle works at a Shari’s, which is a northwestern chain of the same tier as Applebee’s. He also used to work at Applebee’s for a brief time a number of years ago.

He is a long time cook/“chef”, and he says that he does very little cooking at such places. He says that the steaks are cooked fresh, obviously, and things like eggs too. But almost everything else is pre-packaged and just warmed up.

It’s probably not a microwave but a food rethermalizer.

Just like the type used for home cooking. Who doesn’t have fond memories of their grandmother slaving over the rethermalizer for a few minutes to make those special homemade meals?

How it might have been done 25 years ago really doesn’t count. The restaurant game has completely changed since then.

Even linen-napkin places use a lot of pre-portioned and prepared components, some not too far from heat-n-serve.

Having never worked at Applebee’s but for their distributor, I can tell you that ten years ago, most of the sides were pre-prepared, from premarinated, frozen steaks, to smashed potatoes to soup to signature cocktail mixes. The produce for salads was specially mixed and bagged for them.

The sad part is that they were far from alone.

If you want freshly prepared food, the only way to be sure is to stick to restaurants with fewer than 10 locations. For instance, one of my clients is a sports bar with two locations, and nothing is prepared off-site. Even their chicken fingers, usually ordered by children, are made fresh every day from chicken breasts.

Not necessarily. Small restaurants often have to offer big menus to be competitive… and there’s only one cost effective way to do that.

There are restaurants that do fresh prep. Odds are that the ones you think do, don’t… all of them.

Yeah, more restaurants than you think get their menus delivered by Sysco.

I suspect that most people who have never worked in a commercial kitchen, and whose “knowledge” of professional cooking comes from watching chef shows on TV, don’t have the faintest idea about just how labor-intensive and time-consuming it is to prepare everything from scratch. And “labor-intesive” = “higher menu prices” = “not so many people will come eat here”.

You all know the “I slaved over the stove all day to prepare this dinner!” line. A dinner for a family of four or so. If mom had to slave all day to prepare a meal for four, how much “slaving” do you think is involved in preparing meals for hundreds of people each day? Most of whom are all wanting eat at the same time?

The majority of restaurant kitchens are not like what you see on TV or in movies, with a dozen “chefs”, each of whom is performing one specialized task. Instead, most restaurant kitchens have one to three line cooks who are trying to do everything at once. Damn right they’re going to take efficiency over “scratch”.

My last job was as a banquet chef at my city’s convention center. We prepared meals for groups as large as 1400 people. And we did this with three cooks, including the Executive Chef. We did a lot of our dishes from scratch, but when it was feasible to use a pre-prepared item, we took advantage of such products.

Let’s look at something very simple: plain old mashed potatoes. Now, at the convention center, we cooked and mashed the potatoes ourselves. However, the first two Executive Chefs I worked under ordered cases of frozen potatoes that arrived already peeled and sliced into small pieces. These came in 30-pound cases, each case containing six 5-pound bags of pre-peeled, pre-sliced potatoes. First off, this arrangement made it easy to know how much to cook, because we knew that one 5-pound bag would produce enough mashed potatoes for approximately 20 people. And secondly, cooking the potatoes was a simple matter of emptying the appropriate number of bags into perforated hotel pans, and popping them into the steamer for ~30 minutes. When they were done cooking, they’d go into the big mixer, we’d add butter, salt, and pepper, and beat them until the lumps were gone.

The third Exec. Chef I worked under was a high-falutin’ snob* who didn’t believe in that. So under him, we spent hours peeling potatoes by hand, cutting them up by hand, then cooking and mashing them.

And they didn’t taste any better than they did using the old method.

And sure, a 50-pound sack of potatoes cost much less than one of those 30-pound boxes of pre-peeled, pre-sliced, frozen potatoes. A savings that was completely erased by the labor cost of having well-paid (for this area) cooks standing there peeling and cutting potatoes by hand, and probably generating repetitive stress injuries at the same time.

We offered refried beans on our “South of the Border” menu. Under the first two chefs, we used bagged, dehydrated refried beans. Empty the bags into a hotel pan, add boiling water, cover the pan with plastic wrap and foil, and stick them in the warmer. Done.

Under the third chef, it became: Start with a huge sack of pinto beans, cook them for hours and hours and hours, then dump them in the mixer and beat them until they were mush.

And they didn’t taste any better than they did using the old method.

I can describe the same scenario with all sorts of foods.

The general public simply isn’t “up to date” on advances in food preparation. How many of you think (or, if you already know, how many people do you know who think) that pork always has to be cooked “well done”, i.e. to at least 160°? That was true forever. But thanks to advances and improvements in how hogs are raised, it’s now considered safe to serve (non-ground) pork at 145° (“medium rare”). In the same way, today’s frozen food is not the same as yesterday’s frozen food. There have been many advances in frozen food technology over the last couple decades, and now you can get frozen product that is just as good as “fresh”, or nearly so.

  • The type of snob chef who declares, “A microwave oven doesn’t belong in the kitchen”. Yeah, he removed the microwave. So now, instead of taking one minute to melt butter in the microwave (about the only thing we actually used it for), we got to spend 10-15 minutes, depending on the amount of butter, melting it in a pan on the stove. And of course, since we didn’t want it to burn, that meant standing there watching it for 10-15 minutes. At $11-$12+/hour.

Well, if you’re making the argument that commercial kitchens don’t work anything like home kitchens, I think most people understand that. Some even understand that a lot of prep and pre-cooking goes on; your breakfast sausages were gray-cooked hours before you decided to stop at that restaurant, etc. I’d wager that most people even understand that things like pre-sliced and frozen potatoes are used in place of fresh ones.

There’s a big jump, though, and IMVHO, between restaurant-scale fresh and fresh-equivalent components and all the prep-and-hold, and things that are only about one step above a Swanson TV dinner. The latter - fully prepared, bagged and “deep chilled” are NOT what people would pay $20-25 for if they knew the provenance.

The secret keeps well, though, with all the misdirection. You can’t even get into Sysco’s prepared foods section unless you’re a registered customer.

Frankly, half the appeal of eating out to me is that I don’t have to do the cooking and clean up myself and I’m well aware that that is part of what I’m paying for. It’s not like I don’t use “pre-prepped” in my own kitchen at home.

If you go to Sam’s or Costco, you can get chicken tenders that are 99% the same as the ones they use at a LOT of restaurants, and most of the appetizers are available there as well. Sysco or Sam’s, the chicken is probably made by Tyson.

Most things people buy in restaurants are really not hard to make at home, or even involve expensive ingredients or long prep work. There’s just some aspect that makes it inconvenient- having to keep fresh lettuce on-hand, having to deep fry something, having to have a pizza stone/steel, having to have a grill, etc…

Sometimes I think what I’m paying for at a lot of middle to low-end burger joint type places is the ability to have something deep-fried without having to deal with deep frying at home, because I can make french fries, chicken tenders and just about anything that I can get at a restaurant, every bit as well at home, but they tend to be productions rather than something fast.

For example, I can make better pizza than I buy. I usually have my wife make the dough (she’s the baker in the family) and I go get the salami, cheese, and make the sauce. We can bake a pizza in about 5 minutes in our current oven & baking steel setup if the crust is thin enough.

But it’s a freaking production that makes the kitchen need a lot of cleaning, and it heats the house up. If we’re in a hurry and want pizza, or are just lazy, it’s a lot easier to just call the pizza joint on the corner and have one delivered that’s 85% as good in 30 minutes.

I wouldn’t disagree. The argument in the Barbarian household is roast chicken - the Mrs. loves to make it. Against those sold by Sam’s or even the local grocery, the home-roasted ones are only marginally better, cost up to twice as much and make a hellacious greasy mess to clean up.

Mrs. B. also likes to make pizza occasionally, but she concedes that the cost is at least equal to most takeout 'zas.

In both those cases, though, the food is prepared from much the same ingredients as home cooking; maybe the sausage and hamburger is purchased pre-cooked by pizza places, and the cheese may be questionable… but anyone who buys presliced pepperoni, mushrooms, olives and shredded cheese isn’t doing much better.

It’s not about buying pre-prepped restaurant ingredients; I don’t really care who sliced the potatoes as long as the result is acceptable. It’s about relatively expensive and highly-promoted entrees, appetizers and “signature” items that are the next thing to a Hot Pocket or Swanson dinner; all the restaurant does is “thermalize” it, maybe do a quick finish on the grill and dress it - but it’s presented as something made within the restaurant kitchen, and priced accordingly. We’re talking about complex, multi-ingredient, many-stage dishes: lasagna, beef wellington or bourginon, stir frys with exotic ingredients, most seafood dishes…

You might pass on making a pizza because the place down the street makes a good one, but there’s not a lot of mystery about the making or pricing. Would you go spend $30-50 a plate for food from your grocer’s boxed freezer? That’s exactly the case in more and more restaurants, not just at the Applebee’s level but MUCH higher.

At least in our experience, it’s a wash on buying vs roasting- you may pay a tad more for the store-roasted one (like $6.50 vs $6 for a raw fryer), but it doesn’t take you an hour of gas at 450 degrees and that tablespoon of salt and some dried thyme.

Price differential is typically more - unless you buy a 2- or 3-pack from Sam’s or buy a pretty small bird at the grocery store (or catch a good sale), a roaster runs closer to $10 than $6. (We need to feed four or five, most dinners; a 3-pound bird won’t do it.) Sam’s roasted birds, which I’ve found uniformly good to very good, are $4.99. Two for ten and we have a generous dinner plus sandwiches.

Birds in the multi-packs are often $4 or so, but I don’t like buying those unless we get and want 2 for immediate use. I hate the hassle of defrosting “big meat” like whole birds, roasts, etc. SDTAGW, delaying dinner by an hour or more.