Julia Stewart knows chain restaurants from the bottom to the top. Starting as a waitress at IHOP in her teens she would later become president of Applebees, but was denied the chance to be CEO even though she felt she was promised the role.
The mother-of-two became CEO of IHOP in 2001 and was the big mind who orchestrated the takeover of Applebee's in 2007. The company took over $2.3 billion in debt to make the merger happen. Now a publicly traded company, DineEquity, it has more than 3,600 Applebee's and IHOP restaurants with revenue reaching $669 million in 12 months.
"Applebee's needs really fit our core competencies: reenergizing a brand, improving operations," Stewart said. "We had the management capacity and the wherewithal to really make it happen and so we intend to make the same magic at Applebee's that we've been able to do at IHOP."
In the past few years IHOP has made a comeback thanks to its all-day breakfasts, but Applebee's has been struggling to stay relevant in the large assortment of chain restaurant choices.
That's when Stewart steps in with a hope to bring back the restaurant with a new menu, a marketing blitz and renovations to reflect a more modern look. A price tag of $75 million.
Admitting sales have been sluggish, Stewart reveals her plans to change the trend of the restaurants.
"Sluggish, good word. The idea is to change the perception of Applebee’s, and over time to change the trajectory of sales. But the first idea is to change the perception of the brand. People want a $30 experience for $13.75 a person," she said.
And her plan worked. Between 2003 and 2005 sales surged 19 percent at IHOP, but they weren't out of the woods yet.
After Applebee's major brand transformation, sales continued to fall at the restaurant by 4.2 percent and worsened since.
“That just sewed her fate,” Howard Penney, an analyst with Hedgeye Risk Management said.
"We called it a waitress back then," Stewart said. "Not a food server. And I wore the hat and the apron and the, you know, the cuffs, and I got hooked. I fell in love with the restaurant business. I love the constant feedback. I love the interaction with the guests. I love the ability to make a difference in someone's life in 35 minutes or 40 minutes — from the day I went in the restaurant and put on the uniform and felt proud to be a part of IHOP."
When Stewart was just 16-years-old she started her job at IHOP, and ended up working her way up to being the CEO for the company she once made coffee for.
After completing college, Stewart quickly realized that it wasn't her passion and she opted to do on-the-job training instead of going for her M.B.A. After working her way up in restaurant marketing, she started in management at Taco Bell on the night shift.
"I wasn't the best taco maker in the world but sales continued to increase at every restaurant I worked at and so I was fortunate and worked for a great company and a great brand and continued to grow in my career and eventually, you know, had the entire franchise set of business reporting to me," she said.
President to CEO
She had her sights set higher, than management at a franchise. She became president of Applebee's, but she wanted to be CEO. When she was passed over for the job, she ended up leaving for the top spot at IHOP to fulfill her career ambitions.
But did that young 16-year-old know that she would once be running the corporation that she was serving pancakes for?
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Stewart said. "Maybe I didn't know at the time it was IHOP. But in my heart I always wanted to run something — always felt that."
"I'm the luckiest woman in the world, right? I'm living the American Dream. You know, food server made good," Stewart said.
Stewart resigned from the company in March 2017 after 16 years in the top spot.
"I am honored to have led this extraordinary global company through significant periods of growth and transformation over the last 16 years. It has been a privilege to lead two iconic brands, both number one in their respective categories," said Stewart. "I am also grateful for the opportunity to have worked with such talented and passionate executives, team members and franchisees. I am confident in the strong roadmap that has been set forth, and will continue to cheer for the company's success."
During her career she was twice named a Nation's Restaurant News Golden Chain award recipient, and in 2015 received the NRN's Operator of the Year.
The company recently announced that they will be closing over 100 locations nationwide.