Meet John Cywinski, President of Applebee's Grill + Bar. John received the 2021 Silver Plate Award in the Chains Full Service category, and was nominated by PepsiCo and Nestlé Professional.
Watch IFMA's live conversation with John Cywinksi. Hear John's story and learn what drives one of the nation’s top foodservice operators.
Interview: What Drives the Nation's Top Foodservice Operators?
We asked the 2021 Silver Plate Class to share some perspectives and words of wisdom with the industry. Find out what they have to say about their passion for foodservice, career accomplishments and what it means to be part of a legendary group of operators.
How did you get your start in the foodservice industry?
After graduating from college at the age of 21, I went to work for Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago. After a bit of training, I was given the opportunity to work on the national McDonald’s business, the largest and most visible account at the agency. McDonald’s was based in suburban Chicago (Oak Brook, IL) so I spent about half of each week in the city and the other half on McDonald’s corporate campus interacting with their marketing leadership. I’ll never forget that these very successful executives welcomed me, this young kid, as part of their team. It was exciting. I loved every minute of it and I was hooked. Outside of a stint with The Walt Disney Company, I’ve spent my entire career in the restaurant industry, as a result of that first experience.
What do you enjoy most about your career in foodservice?
I love big brands. I love the fact that my family and friends can relate to what I do. They all eat at Applebee’s, KFC and McDonald’s. I don’t have to explain what I do … everyone grew up with these brands, and they get it. Everyone has a personal story. They tell me all the time how much they love our Applebee’s advertising, which always makes my day. This industry is big and visible and a genuine part of American culture. My Mom, God rest her soul, thought it was cool that I was the President of KFC … kind of following in Colonel Sanders footsteps (without the white suit). She would tell her friends that all the time. What I ultimately find most rewarding are the long-standing friendships I’ve developed with franchisees, colleagues and mentors along the way.
Tell us about your biggest career accomplishment.
After initially leaving Applebee’s in 2006, I was asked by franchisees and the Board to come back as President of Applebee’s in early 2017. At the time, I had another very prominent CEO opportunity, but chose Applebee’s because I believed in my franchise partners and I had an emotional connection to the brand … and I wanted to accomplish something remarkable that no one thought was possible. In 2018, our talented team ended up delivering the best results the brand had seen in 25 years, outperforming every category of the restaurant industry. Now, in 2021, the team is at it again with big-time momentum, outperforming casual dining category for 12 consecutive weeks, with March and April being two of the best sales months in our 40-year history. We’re excited about our post-pandemic future as I believe our biggest accomplishment has yet to take place.
How have you kept yourself and your team motivated this past year?
We’re a very competitive team and we like to win. While the pandemic certainly tested us in unimaginable ways, we also knew this would be short-term in nature … although those 12 months honestly felt like 12 years. We genuinely believe in one another. Our franchise partners and our team are an extraordinarily tight-knit team with a strong culture. We’ve been through adversity together and we knew Applebee’s would be exceptionally well-positioned in a post-pandemic environment (In fact, I believe Applebee’s is at its best when facing adversity). America trusts the Applebee’s brand and our franchisees earned that trust every day throughout this pandemic with their determination, entrepreneurial spirit, innovation, and execution. And now, looking forward, our franchise partners will reap the rewards of their perseverance in a big way. We’re that wonderfully familiar and affordable little escape from your everyday, where you can connect with family or friends over good food and a drink. This is what we call Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood.
What advice do you have for someone new to the foodservice industry?
The restaurant business is a people business and it’ll always be a people business. You’ve got to love people and hospitality, and you can’t take yourself too seriously. The industry is a mature, intensely competitive business, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Work ethic and teamwork are essential. As part of a big brand, you can never lose sight of your restaurant teams, franchise partners and guests. Without these folks, I wouldn’t have a job. For those in a corporate environment, never ever allow corporate bureaucracy to get in the way of your brand’s wonderfully unique identity.
What does being an IFMA Silver Plate recipient mean to you?
This is really for our restaurant servers, kitchen cooks, dishwashers, sanitation specialists, bartenders, and restaurant managers, who will always remain the selfless and unsung heroes of the pandemic in my eyes. I’m truly humbled by this recognition because it means our Applebee’s team and franchise partners have been recognized for their hard work, and that always brings a smile to my face (particularly after the year we all just experienced).
What is your favorite meal?
Appetizer Sampler, Bourbon Street Chicken & Shrimp, along with a Patron Perfect Margarita and a Triple Chocolate Meltdown dessert. I always walk away a happy man!