If the coronavirus crisis has you looking to support local restaurants, this isn't one of them.

By Mike Pomranz
May 19, 2020
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By now, most delivery app customers have hopefully come to terms with “ghost kitchens”—delivery-only facilities that aren’t attached to an actual restaurant. A kitchen is a kitchen, and if the chefs are good, do you really need to be able to stop by? But here’s a conundrum: What if the “ghost” kitchen is already a restaurant you know serving up delivery meals under a different name? Is that innovation or is it deception?

Last month, Chuck E. Cheese made headlines after customers uncovered that the kid-focused chain was selling pizzas on Grubhub as Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings—with a spokesperson telling us the food is different, featuring “a thicker crust and extra sauce, giving consumers a more flavorful, more premium pizza experience.” Now, another major chain has been spotted using a similar tactic: Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill has been selling wings on Grubhub under the brand name Neighborhood Wings.

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Scott Gladstone, vice president of Applebee's strategy and development, was open about the practice—which appears to have started last month (at least according to the oldest Twitter mention)—when asked by Today.com. “At Applebee's restaurants, wings are a top selling menu item,” he told the site. “We launched Neighborhood Wings by Applebee's on GrubHub to make it even easier for guests to get their wings fix and to give us the opportunity to test out new items made for wing lovers that aren't on our main menu. […] As we continue to learn from this brand extension, we will be introducing additional innovation to meet our guests' demands.”

Reached for comment, Gladstone also told me via email that Applebee's had "rolled out the launch of Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s over the past four-to-six weeks on GrubHub, and it’s available in nearly 750 restaurants nationwide." He then added, "While the concept has been in development for months, our recent model shift to an only off-premise business was a great opportunity for us to launch and further serve our guests."

Unlike “Pasqually’s,” which features no mention of Chuck E. Cheese, Neighborhood Wings is officially listed on Grubhub as “Neighborhood Wings by Applebee’s.” And the Neighborhood Wings’ logo does include “by Applebee’s” in smaller print. However, this distinction doesn’t appear when searching for restaurants. Instead, all Grubhub customers see is “Neighborhood Wings.” An Applebee's spokesperson clarified to me that "by Applebee's" has always been part of the name, and they weren't clear as to why the full name was not used in the search results.

So is Applebee’s launching Neighborhood Wings any different than Hooters trying to clean up its act by launching Hoots? Or Buffalo Wild Wing going more quick-service with B-Dubs Express? And during this coronavirus crisis, restaurants have been forced to work in the delivery space more than before. Can you blame Applebee’s for trying to drum up more business in a tough environment?

Maybe not, but the COVID-19 pandemic also creates a different issue beyond being confused about where your food came from: Independent restaurants are more likely to go out of business, and many customers are actively trying to support these local business owners. Online ordering can make it more difficult to tell which businesses are independent. And though Applebee’s might promote itself as the “Neighborhood Grill,” calling its wings spinoff “Neighborhood Wings” taps into a touchy subject during these difficult times.

That’s not to say Applebee’s was purposely trying to take advantage of people’s current buying habits. For a truly neighborhood joint, the name “Neighborhood Wings” would be pretty on the nose if not all too generic. Still, if Applebee’s wings are so popular, you'd think customers would know where to find them. (At Applebee’s.) And if Applebee’s really wants to make it “easier” for people to find these wings as Gladstone said, calling the spinoff something like "Applebee’s Wings" would have made it extremely obvious.

Update May 20, 2020: This article has been edited to include a response from Applebee's.