Last Thursday, after the first full day of the war, I knew exactly where I wanted to be: at America's neighborhood restaurant.
I'd known this since January, when I read a tiny item in the Star's business section. The blurb quoted Applebee's CEO and Board Chairman Lloyd Hill, who'd told Bloomberg Television that his hefty, Johnson County-based chain was likely to grow even fatter if the United States went to war with Iraq.
"We're likely to be the beneficiary of that," Hill said. "People will be stopping at our to-go facilities ... and taking food home to watch the war."
Those were sentiments worth celebrating -- even if they weren't as mercenary as they sounded out of context in the Star. Mr. Hill had originally let them fly in a wide-ranging January 14 interview with one of the Bloomberg news service's TV reporters.
Applebee's International had "delivered some tasty profits," began Suzy Assaad, adding that the company's earnings had risen an average of 17 percent over the last five years and that lots of investors were "nibbling" on its stock. Assaad drooled over the company that was doing its hometown proud -- opening its 1,500th restaurant that very day.
Hill told her he was ordering up 800 more Applebee's. He himself eats there six or seven times a week, God bless him. "Not only am I incented to go in there because of the business," he said (and yeah, that's how he really talked about lunch), "but I really enjoy the food."
Assaad asked him what he feared. Was it competition? Higher raw-materials prices? (I assume she meant sugar and Mexi-ranch sauce.) A continued economic slowdown?
"I'm most concerned about those events that are outside of our control," Hill told her. "Are we going to war? Will there be some other catastrophic event?"
That's how he got into speculation that war would be good for Applebee's.
And if it's good for Applebee's, it's good for America. Hell, I was starving, so I threw a couple of midtown friends in my SUV, and we headed out south.
"Jeez, it's crowded," John said as we pulled into Applebee's square of blacktop amid the parking lots all bleeding together in a joyous expanse of JoCo commerce.
His twelve-year-old daughter, Lydia, was oblivious to the patriotic significance of our dining destination; nonetheless, she skipped along behind us singing Eatin' good in the neighborhood. In the entryway, a firefighter's uniform hung on the wall near a police officer's shirt covered with yellow tape reading "Police Line Do Not Cross." I was impressed with Applebee's strategic flexibility: In addition to providing MREs for hungry war watchers, it appeared to have decorated its restaurant with reminders that we're at war because Saddam Hussein was clearly behind 9/11. (Or not. I soon realized that the display was just part of the standard décor, which included uniforms from Bishop Meige and Pembroke Hill heroes, too.)
The place was packed.
"Yeah, it's pretty busy tonight, probably because of the KU game," said our cheery hostess, pointing to the bar, where a couple of TVs were tuned to various sports channels. What about take-out orders, I asked.
"Take-out has been a lot busier than a regular weeknight," she said.
We hadn't even ordered before a parade of servers walked out of the kitchen all in a line, shouting "Woooo!" They surrounded a table of diners and began clapping furiously and shouting "Na na na na na na na na hey! They say it's your birthday!"
Lydia scrunched up her nose. "If I worked here, I wouldn't take part in any of the rituals," she said.
"You'd have to," John said.
John and Lydia ordered dinners that came on plates as big as satellite dishes, but for me there was only one option. Here, apple pie was Cinnamon-Apple Crisp Ala Mode, an irradiated iron skillet covered with scorched apples, cinnamon-and-brown-sugar streusel and vanilla ice cream that the menu promised was "An all-American fantasy."
Our waitress agreed that the night was unusually busy. She figured that was because it was raining. "People are thinking they want something grilled, but, argh, it's too cold," she said.
Another birthday parade came out of the kitchen, one of the servers yelling "Attention Applebee's!" and pointing to an eleven-year-old girl and her family near the front windows. In the brightly lit center bar, nobody was watching the TVs as KU barely skirted past Utah State. A couple of guys in white shirts and ties smoked cigarettes at one end of the bar; at the other end, a blonde in a leather blazer drank a beer by herself, as if she wanted to be the take-out.
Yet again, a line of servers burst from the kitchen singing, this time for a couple of forty-year-olds. A few minutes passed, and then more clapping! Jennifer's twentieth! That's just one of the beautiful things about Applebee's -- and America. The way we take care of each other.
We were stuffed. An Applebee's spokesperson would later tell us stock-market regulations prevented her from disclosing whether take-out business was up, at least until the company's official report at the end of the month. But before we left, we checked in with the bartender, who confirmed Mr. Hill's prediction. "We've sold tons of carry out," he said. "People are watching the war on TV. That and the game."
The war got kind of boring for a couple of days, but by Sunday night it was must-see TV again. There were dead bodies to look at, and POWs.
Fortunately, Applebee's is in it for the duration. Last May, the company's head financial officer, Steve Lumpkin, told the Star, "We've got a lot of leverage capacity, a lot of gunpowder."
Eat up, everyone.