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Applebee's co-founder Bill Palmer dies

The former Burger King field exec created the brand as a step-up from fast food.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Bill Palmer, co-founder and a longtime franchisee of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar, died last week from pancreatic cancer, the casual-dining chain revealed. Palmer’s age was not disclosed.

The Georgian had been an advisor to the brand right up until the time of his death, according to Applebee’s President John Cywinski.

Palmer and his then-wife, T.J., opened a restaurant called T.J. Applebee’s Edibles and Elixirs in July 1980 in what had been a quick-service hamburger outlet, using $40,000 they had borrowed from the U.S. Small Business Administration, according to a history posted on the internet by T.J.  The couple was already familiar with the restaurant business by that point. Bill had worked as a franchise district manager for Burger King, and the pair had run a unit of a small local chain called Billy’s.

Years later, Palmer explained that he wanted to create a place where people could trade up from fast food to slightly more ambitious fare and alcoholic beverages, at a price level not far above what they paid in quick-service places. The notion caught on, and more restaurants followed, still using the T.J. Applebee’s name.

The concept was sold in May 1983 to W.R. Grace, at the time one of the nation’s largest restaurant operators through its ownership of the Houlihan’s chain and Del Taco restaurants in the eastern half of the U.S.  The “T.J.” was dropped from the concept’s name.

Palmer became a franchisee while also developing his own concepts, including a celebrated full-service venture called Up the Creek.

Palmer incorporated a few quirky features into Applebee’s. For instance, he insisted that all seating be at the same level, so patrons could make eye contact. Applebee’s also featured photos, banners and other logoed items from local sports teams to give the restaurants a neighborhood feel. The brand used a core menu but left a significant percentage available so franchisees could tailor their bills of fare to local tastes.

“This tragic loss affects everyone in the Applebee’s family in a profound way,” Cywinski said in disclosing Palmer’s death. “Bill was loved by all who knew him for his entrepreneurial passion, intellect, creativity, generosity and his truly unique, one of a kind sense of humor.”

Today Applebee's is the nation's largest casual dining chain, both in terms of number of units and in systemwide sales.

Correction: This story originally misstated the name of a secondary Palmer Concept. The correct name of the venture was Up the Creek, sans Without a Paddle.

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