The Franchise King

Apple-Metro, Inc.’s Zane Tankel, who co-owns 34 Applebee’s, has climbed to the top of a major franchise food chain—and, in his spare time, conquered major mountains.

If you ever spot Zane Tankel at a local Applebee’s, don’t assume he’s just your average diner. The Ivy League grad and Northern New Jersey resident has climbed Mount Everest, traveled to all seven continents, toiled on a fishing trawler in Mexico, and, as a third-degree-black-belt martial artist, could probably kick the butt of anyone in the room. His next undertaking: “I want to go to India and spend three or four days in an ashram.”

    Until then, though, the 60-something Tankel will just have to settle for being chief executive officer of Apple-Metro, Inc. (AMI), of which he owns 60 percent. (COO Miguel Fernandez, CFO Frank Venice, and President/AMI co-founder Roy Braeburn own the rest.) The Harrison-based company owns and operates every single Applebee’s restaurant in the five boroughs and Westchester and Rockland counties.

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    As if being the owner and operator of all 34 restaurants wasn’t enough, this year AMI expects to open another one in Manhattan (on 117th Street), and four more in New York City are in the works for 2012. It’s one of the major restaurant operators in the New York City area. AMI now has the three largest Applebee’s restaurants in the world: one on Manhattan’s 50th Street, which brings in $14 million per year; one on 42nd Street, the second most profitable; and one in Queens’s Rego Park. AMI’s other locations take in $5 to $6 million each; comparatively, the average U.S. Applebee’s grosses around $2.4 million. In 2010, it reaped $140 million in sales, and Tankel predicts that 2011 will bring in more than $150 million. That’s not too shabby, considering that Applebee’s has more than 1,990 restaurants in 49 states, 15 countries, and a U.S. territory.

    Further proof that AMI is a significant player for the Applebee’s International, Inc. (AI) brand: In 2005, it won AI’s “Innovator Award” for implementing things that were, says Tankel, “all unbroken ground.” For example, AMI takes its kitchen and general managers and their spouses on a high-seas cruise every 18 months; it built the first multi-story Applebee’s restaurants in the world; and it establishes restaurants in underserved neighborhoods, such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, the South Bronx, and Harlem.

    Tankel knows all about underserved neighborhoods. He was raised in a two-fists-flying, blue-collar neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey. His dad worked as a printing salesman, his mom was a homemaker, and whatever money Tankel had came from doing odd jobs as well as caddying at a golf course, to which he had to hitchhike 30 miles. His environs taught him that “money has nothing to do with the kind of person you are.”

    His father, who never graduated from high school, begged him to go to college, though Tankel wanted to join the Marine Corps. He ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a BS in economics from the Wharton School because, he says, “it was as good as any choice.”

    His budding wanderlust then sent him on a yearlong road trip around the U.S. After six months of working for Metropolitan Life Insurance in San Francisco, his desire for travel landed him in Mexico, “kicking around in different jobs here and there.” Back in New York, he got into the printing business and opened numerous plants around the U.S. He also married Joan, now his wife of nearly 40 years, whom he met at a party in Manhattan; they have two daughters, Melani, 32, and Nicole, 28.

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    In 1984, he sold all but two of his printing plants to become, as he puts it, “an adventurer of sorts,” for an undetermined amount of time. Joan chose to stay home with their daughters. Among his adventures: climbing mountains in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and North America, and going to the North and South poles. In 1986, he climbed Mount Everest. “It’s a lifetime experience. It certainly requires a lot of physical effort, but it’s also a huge mental stress. At about fifteen-thousand feet, you’re oxygen-deprived, and then you get these incredible migraine headaches. You wake up every day and have to continue the climb even though you feel like your head’s falling off. It is very gratifying when you get back—but when you’re doing it, it’s an ordeal.”

    After also conquering the U.S.’s Mount Rainier, he took on various business ventures: starting a small public relations company and an executive-lecturing company. All that changed in October 1994. Tankel had ditched his 30 years in the commercial-printing business and was scouting around for something new. “I’d been in that industry for a long time and needed something new,” he says. “My soul said it was time to move on.” Then-acquaintance Raeburn, who had owned and operated eight Roy Rogers restaurants, presented the Applebee’s idea to him. They built the first of the casual-dining eateries in Staten Island.

“I am ADD personified,” he says. “I’m like a kid at an amusement park.”

    “Back then, there were only about three hundred or four hundred Applebee’s restaurants in the U.S., and they were expanding,” Tankel says. “We parlayed the Staten Island territory up to Westchester, our second territory.”

    Tankel, who, in 2008 and 2009, was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the New York metro area, has the corner office at AMI’s 45-employee headquarters on Mamaroneck Avenue. He spends most days calling on one or more of his Applebee’s eateries—driving 80,000 miles a year in the process—where he talks with the servers and managers, and goes into the kitchens to shake hands with and thank all the cooks. He proceeds to the “front of the house” (the customers’ area) to watch it operate for a while. Then it’s on to the next Applebee’s. “I want to be seen, to be the face of AMI,” Tankel says. “I don’t want it to be just a logo; no one wants to work for a logo.”
He sits on the boards of Morton’s The Steakhouse; the Caribbean Restaurant Group (300 Burger Kings in Puerto Rico); Perkins Restaurant & Bakery (there are over 1,000 in the U.S.); Marie Callender’s; and Allis-Chalmers Energy Inc., a leading provider of oil services and equipment. He also rides his bike up to 40 miles every weekend.

    “I am ADD personified,” he says. “I’m like a kid at an amusement park. If I get tired of the Ferris wheel, I go on the merry-go-round; I get off the merry-go-round and get on the bumper cars.”

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    One aspect of business that Tankel never tires of is interacting with his employees; he downright thrives on it. “My greatest thrill is watching people grow, and I think they know that. The definition of managing is working through your people; that means earning their respect, not their fear.” Tankel is a firm believer in showing his underlings that he works just as hard as they do.

    Tankel also prefers to dress like one of the gang. Today he’s wearing a black, long-sleeve T-shirt and blue Levi’s. “I very consciously dress this way. I don’t want to put on a tie and jacket because it’s a separation—an invisible screen—between me and them. I dress to impress that we’re all in this world together, as opposed to elevating myself.” (At the other companies’ board meetings, though, he always wears custom-made suits.)

    He also wants his restaurant employees to give the public a compelling reason to choose an Applebee’s over similar establishments such as Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Ruby Tuesday. Tankel describes the process: “We use a smile to say, ‘Hi, and welcome to Applebee’s.’ We have a one-minute greet time, so when you sit down, somebody has to come to you within one minute. We have a two-minute check-back, which means, after your food is served, the server says, ‘Enjoy,’ walks away, comes back within two minutes and says, ‘Is everything OK? Is that steak cooked the way you want it?’ These are all orchestrated events; they don’t just happen. And we try to find people who have it their DNA to not read the script mechanically.”

    It’s not just friendly and proficient servers that have kept AMI restaurants afloat and expanding during this seemingly endless economic depression. Since, and despite, the economic crash in 2007, AMI opened nine restaurants via lowered costs for real estate and construction, as well as an increased availability of employees. “You can go out and meet the devil or run from the devil,” Tankel says. “People were going out of business left and right, so we went out to get the devil. I use the adage, ‘If it’s raining, learn to dance in the rain.’”

    With his upcoming trek through India, Tankel’s hankering for voyages is apparently endless. “When you get done traveling, you just get back and start over again, because everything changes. My wife worries that I’ll never satiate my desire to travel.” Joan and their kids can rest easy now that at least that whole mountain-climbing thing is out of his system. These days, Tankel relegates himself to being an avid cyclist, swimmer, weight-trainer, and martial artist. “You need to keep your body fit to keep your mind fit. I’m eighteen years old in my brain; I mean that. I do martial arts with guys twenty years old and I stay right in there toe to toe.

    “This is who I am,” he continues. “I’ve never spent a lot of time on a shrink’s couch trying to figure it out. But I’ve always thought big. Nothing’s too big.”

    And as for how much longer he’ll be with AMI? “Right now, I’m a very contented guy.”

When dining out, veteran magazine writer Jenny Higgons, a resident of Hastings-on-Hudson, always looks at the dessert menu first.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

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