Applebee’s offers a free meal to vets on Veterans Day. Such a simple idea, but few companies do it so well. In one day they’ve made thousand of friends around the country, earned limitless goodwill — and sold out every seat in every restaurant around the country. This is marketing — and saying thank you — at it’s very best.
Here’s the story as told by Lesley Lykins, my colleague at SocialMedia.org who recently joined us from the U.S. Navy:
Last year we arrived at our local Applebee’s in Alexandria, Va. to find a line around the building in — the pouring rain no less. We left the parking lot and headed to the nearby Outback Steakhouse for a heavily-advertised free “blooming onion.” The line there was an hour and a half so we ended up at Wendy’s.
This year on Nov. 11 we once again headed to the local Applebee’s. This time in our new neighborhood of Round Rock, Tx. With our two small children in tow, we arrived at the front door where a large number of people, many in shirts or hats depicting their service or veteran status, stood chatting and laughing. Young Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) students from the nearby high school were dressed in uniform and greeting veterans as they arrived. No one seemed to mind the 40 minute wait, and many enjoyed talking to veterans from various eras as more people filtered in.
Once we were called to our table, my husband, children, and I walked through a tunnel of Sea Cadets that shook our hands and thanked us for our service as we made our way to the table. Special menus were placed on the table with a select variety of meals to choose from. I can only describe the atmosphere as festive and full of camaraderie.
All around us at practically every table sat a veteran, groups of veterans, and families in clothes printed with “Navy,” “Marines,” “Army,” and “Air Force.” It felt like one large family dinner with fun music and a shared knowledge of service.
I talked to a few of the JROTC students and asked them how many veterans they had greeted. Depending on when they had arrived, their answers varied from “around 50” to “hundreds.” Afterwards, when I chatted with some older veterans waiting for their table, they told me that they come out to Applebee’s on Veterans Day because they enjoy being with their fellow veterans, not necessarily for the free meal.
As we were getting ready to leave, I stopped to ask the manager how things were going. He estimated that they had even more veterans stop in this year than last. He told me that Applebee’s reported over 3 million customers on Veterans Day last year and he wouldn’t be surprised if they surpassed that number this year. The staff loves how busy the restaurant stays on Veterans Day and while it is exhausting, it is definitely worth it.
I think my biggest surprise tonight is that it really wasn’t so much about the free meal, although I am truly humbled and grateful for Applebee’s generosity. Instead, it is about the crowd gathered there to eat. The knowledge that there you sit amongst veterans from World War II as well as current active duty service members. Applebee’s, through a free meal, has created a nationwide gathering spot for veterans to share food, friendship, and stories of service — if just for one day a year.