Monday, June 17, 2013

Applebee's & The Mermaid Parade

This past weekend, the Applebee's of Coney Island had its grand opening, unveiling a giant shark tank filled with amusement park miniatures, including a neon Wonder Wheel and Cyclone.

The tank was made by Las Vegas' Acrylic Tank Manufacturing company, stars of a reality television show called Tanked, in which two guys make large, elaborate fish tanks, e.g., a 57,000 gallon aquarium for a Dallas megachurch and a "man-cave aquarium" for an NFL player.

photo: Coney Applebee's Facebook page

Next weekend, the international chain restaurant, that honey-glazed, Fiesta lime-flavored emblem of the suburban dining experience, will throw a Mermaid Parade Party in collaboration with Coney Island USA. Tickets to the party are $45 and they'll give you entry to Applebee's "comfortable air-conditioned dining room" for drinks and an all-you-can-eat buffet in the "ambiance of the hottest new restaurant" in Coney Island.

What is wrong with this picture?

Coney Island, wild child of the city's fringe, is suffocating in national chains. Applebee's has plenty of company, including Johnny Rockets, Red Mango, Dunkin Donuts, and Subway, with Hooters and Outback Steak House on the developers' wish list.

As Amusing the Zillion said six months ago, the park "famous for its quirky authenticity" is "about to look and taste more like Anyplace USA."

Zane Tankel, CEO of Apple-Metro, Inc., the Applebee's franchisee for New York City, sees it another way. He told the Daily News, “Coney Island’s time has come. It’s the renaissance of the neighborhood."

What kind of a renaissance is this?

The image on Applebee's Mermaid Parade Party ticket provides a clue--a photo of gals (and guys) who look nothing like the scrappy, freaky, iconoclastic artists that epitomize Coney's mermaids and men. The young women in the foreground are air-brushed stock-photo princesses better suited to a Disneyland float than a little red wagon pulled by a bearded drag queen on a three-speed bike.

And while the Mermaid Parade was originally meant, in part, to pay tribute to Coney's old Mardi Gras parades, the colors and beads on this poster seem just a little too Mardi Gras and not enough Mermaid. Maybe the poster was re-purposed from a Fat Tuesday Riblets Feast. Can a multi-national corporation truly get the Mermaid Parade, or the spirit of Coney Island?

I asked Zipper director Amy Nicholson her thoughts. She told me, "The Mermaid Parade embodies the spirit of Coney Island: wild, chaotic, creative, unfettered and free-spirited--words that I am sure do not appear in Applebee's brand guidelines. I wonder what will happen when pictures surface of topless women (or a guy with a shark on his penis) with their logo in the background."

(For more on that, check out Laurie Essig's essay on how the source of the Mermaid Parade's popularity is "bared breasts and the age-old question of whether or not the mermaid has a vagina.")

supertouchart: Big Dick Merman

We know that Bloomberg likes his luxury city to be clean and in uniform--everything gritty and chaotic, from newsstands to whole neighborhoods, has to be systematically rezoned and renovated to fall in line with his vision. Since Coney Island had the misfortune to get on Bloomberg's radar, it's been under siege by developers who aim to profit by cleaning it up and making it palatable for mainstream audiences (for the whole tragic story, you must see Zipper).

Applebee's is now selling the Mermaid Parade as a family-focused event: "The Mermaid Parade is all about family! Enjoy the largest art parade of the nation and join us at America's favorite family friendly restaurant." Families and kids have always attended the parade, but the event is not, and never was, "all about family." I'd say it's all about art, yes, along with: transgression, activism, crossdressing, freakiness, and tits. Lots of tits.

(We also know what "family" is code for in this country.)

Applebee's Facebook

From the beginning, the mermaid activists and their friends fought back against the developers and city planners. At the 2008 Mermaid Parade, in the window of Coney Island USA, the Queen Mermaid held a hunger strike to rescue Coney from the "gentrifying apocalypse of retail entertainment hell." In 2009, Miss Cyclone and the mermaids protested City Hall, demanding that Coney not become "Anywhere, USA."

But the wheels of politics and development kept on turning. Many of the fighters lost their steam as the bulldozers of Big Business knocked Coney nearly flat.

And then came Sandy.

2008: "The Empire is trying to...turn it into a shopping mall"

The hurricane wiped out the Mermaid Parade's headquarters. Parade founder Dick Zigun launched a Kickstarter campaign to save the event, which has become costly due to the high price of managing massive crowds. Coney Island USA wrote on their Kickstarter page, "A free parade is expensive. As the crowds have grown to 750,000 people over the past years, we've had to contend with more regulations and restrictions that have sharply increased the cost of the event."

As Coney has become cleaner and safer, like much of the city, it isn't just the intrepid freaks and scruffy locals who go out there--it's tourists and the new New Yorkers. Those bigger crowds mean the parade needs more money to keep going. Who has lots of money? The corporations that have made Coney Island more enticing to those new crowds--national and multinational chains that are desperate to appear "local" and "hip."

It's a vicious cycle.


I got in touch with the Mermaid Parade organizers at Coney Island USA. Their development director, Tim Pendrell, told me that a percentage of Applebee's sales during the party will go to the parade. He said, "They also donated the terrace overlooking the parade route as a reward for our Kickstarter campaign to save the parade. They've actually been the most supportive company to our Kickstarter campaign."

I asked Dick Zigun if he thinks it's problematic to have a multi-national, suburban-style chain sponsoring the urban artists' parade.

He told me: "It is so simplistic and inaccurate to proclaim the new Coney Island Applebee's generic and a standard suburban franchise. It is run by a local businessman who heavily themed it Coney Island, including a unique, expensive, large fish tank with sharks swimming around a submerged Wonderwheel, Cyclone, and Parachute Jump."

He continued, "From the first parade in 1983, sponsored by Nathan's, the Mermaid Parade has always worked with corporate sponsorship as long as they do not interfere with Artistic Policy. Astroland, Geek Squad, Dunkin Donuts, etc., and many, many beer companies have contributed to many of our 30 past parades. I not only protect the integrity of the parade's founding principles, I also have to pay for it. Pay the bills or disappear."

fishtank photo: Coney Applebee's Facebook page

Owned by IHOP, Applebee's comes from Missouri, originally Kansas, and has over 2,000 locations across America and internationally. But they like to look local. As they say on one site, "Marketed as 'America's Favorite Neighbor®,' each Applebee's reflects the neighborhood in which it is located. The decor further conveys this theme with photographs and memorabilia highlighting hometown heroes, local schools and area history."

The new Applebee's might be Coney themed, but it's not Coney. Of course, this is what's happening to the whole city--large corporations and smaller entrepreneurs alike are co-opting the city's authentic spaces and replacing them with a theme of authenticity.

When Bruce Ratner helped bring a lurid, flashy, New York-themed Applebee's to 42nd Street in Times Square in 2000, many of us gasped in horror. In his book The Devil's Playground, author James Traub put the chain restaurant in the category of "mass-produced dreck." Ratner defended it.

"Applebee's," said the real-estate developer, "they're what America is today." Ratner was right.

Zane Tankel owns both the Times Square and the Coney Island Applebee's. In fact, he runs every Applebee's in the city, at least 40 locations. Last year, he told Fox News that, because of Obamacare, he might not build more restaurants or hire more workers, and he would consider cutting workers' hours due to the high cost of paying their health insurance. Tankel's Apple-Metro revenue was over $137.2 million in 2011 according to Forbes.

One of the sharks in Applebee's tank was named after Mr. Tankel, and he's a killer. Reports the Daily News: "A Blacktip shark named Zane had to be removed Friday from the restaurant’s 5,000-gallon aquarium after devouring three Lookdown fish in a shocking killing spree. That very same day, a Whitetip shark died after colliding with a three-foot Wonder Wheel replica in the tank, leaving employees shaken by the mayhem."

typical American Applebee's

Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping is a former King Neptune of the Mermaid Parade. I asked his thoughts about Applebee's involvement there. I'll leave you with the colorful words he offered:

"Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade? Oh, Applebee's must have changed from the soft, safe, middle-class chain diner. They must be naked in there, full of smells and seductions, barkers at the bullhorn and mysterious skinny guys pulling the lever on the Cyclone smoking Chesterfield no filters while hawking tourist women's legs.

Applebee's must have changed. It must have accepted chance, danger, and the End of the World. It must love working families who only have ten bucks to spend. Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade. It must love scaly, slithering women who make people forget about money.

This is really interesting. Applebee's in the Mermaid Parade. This is really fascinating. The food there isn't still lousy and expensive? I won't find out. I'll rob the cash register and shout Freakalujah!"

photo: Evan Sante


Anonymous said...

Agree on all counts except one--I don't think there is anything wrong with suggesting that the Mermaid Parade could be billed as a family event. I think it's puritanical to suggest that kids can't be around this kind of festive nudity. I like seeing kids there--in the afternoon.

But yeah, Applebee's, that's terrible.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i didn't say families aren't welcome. there are lots of kids there. i said it's not "all about family."

Brendan said...

If you think the "new New Yorkers" are responsible for Applebees, you misunderstand the situation badly. "Real New Yorkers" are to blame for this one.

Anonymous said...

^^ the cry of a suburban transplant new New Yorker secretly enjoying the arrival of Brendan's beloved Applebee's. Would you like the ultimate trio of gentrification with that.

Anonymous said...

I wish they would put 'sharks', aka investors and developers, in that tank along with the real sharks and let them devour each other.

Anonymous said...

Here is an example of how Applebee's runs its business: I received an email from the restaurant's marketing and Project Manager, Christina Dell Angello, asking for "memorabilia, photos, books, private collections, etc. . . that would "be beneficial toward our design element" for the new Applebee's in Coney Island." They wanted this material for the "interior decor."
I asked how much their budget was and she told me" $250"!! As a professional photographer, I found this to be an outrageous rip-off and insulting as well. You can't even get a large photo FRAMED for $250! They can spend $200,000 for a shark-killing tank but when it comes to paying artists they get really, really cheap.

Little Earthquake said...

"Those bigger crowds mean the parade needs more money to keep going."

I don't understand this sentence. Doesn't bigger crowds usually equal more money spent by consumers?

In any case I come from Middle America but have always hated Applebee's. On the other hand I think a shark tank is pretty bitchin' and would have a beer in an Applebee's to see that (just no food).

But the way I see it - the market wants what it wants. Nobody forces anybody to go to these establishments. Someday Applebee's, too, will fall into disrepair, and then be no more. Perhaps it will be buried and praised on a holographic blog like HoJo's was. As for the here and now, I just roll with the punches and enjoy NYC as it is.

Anonymous said...

Ah, mainstream America. so desperate to be 'hip' and cool. The irony they don't understand is once they get a hold of anything that lets them express their 'individuality', like tatooing for example, they've killed all the street credibility that made it unique in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure why Coney and "chains" are such a big issue these days. We've always had chains.

For years Nathans, McDonalds (use to be on the boardwalk and now on Stillwell). Popeye's Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, Nedick's, Child's Restaurant, Carvel, Subway and others that I'm probably forgetting have been here for decades.

Even recently Grimaldi's and Tom's have come along with no outrage.

It even states in the article that Applebee's has been the most fiscally supportive of the Parade. What does it tell you about the rest of the areas businesses support when a statement like that is made?

While I'm sure they all reap the rewards of hundreds of thousands of people patronizing their businesses, it's pretty obvious they don't pony up enough money as sponsors, to avoid things like Kickstarter.

Brendan said...

anon 9:42, it's become clear to me that you either don't live here or you're a complete shut-in. All you have to do is walk by one of the several Applebee's already in the five boroughs to see what I mean. And no, I've never eaten at any of them.

Anonymous said...

Coney lost its appeal to me when they:

lost much of their significant vintage architecture (Bank across from CIUSA, Hendersons Music Hall/Restaurant)

started serving Panini/SALADS on the Boardwalk

tried to sell me a premade NUKED funnel cake at Pauls Daughter (this is what we fought to save?)

lost Dennys

Pretty much the only thing Id go down for now is Williams Candy and the Snack Bar next door (both owned by Peter) and a Burger at Rubys.

Its just not the same place I couldnt wait to get to every chance I got...especially when I performed in burlesque shows up in the Museum or down on the main stage in the Sideshow. Its just not there anymore. cosias Office

Anonymous said...


I used to love driving south to Florida before I-95. Now it all looks like the place where I live.

Anonymous said...

Born and raised in NYC, Brendan. And you? Missing those mozzarella sticks aren't you?

Anonymous said...

The Sheepshead Bay Applebees is more packed than any restaurant on Emmons Ave. Old Brooklyn has embraced the franchise restaurants. Can't put this one on the transplants.

Mooser said...

I left New York in 1969, never to return. I'm glad I spent some time at Coney Island. I loved the Steeplechase, and most of all, the Parachute Jump.
Any of that still there?

Brendan said...

A shut-in, then. Go outside! Talk to people! Many things will surprise and confuse you at first but I think you'll find it rewarding.

laura r. said...

anon 11:47- grow up. what the hell is "street cred"?? the mainstream will copy anything really fast. things get commericialized in 3 seconds. i dont know your age, but its childish to think something is cool IF "they" are NOT doing it. (or god forbid even know it exists). either something is cool or its not. either you look good or you dont. i wear flip flops i love flip flops. i dont care if its pink flamingos. i dont care what jeremiah says. anything & everythng thing i wear & like is cool. because I AM. ps. applebees is not cool. never heard of this mermaid thing,........looks a bit cheesy to me. ok very cheesy.

Anonymous said...

This laura cant be real. Nobody talks like she does...

Anonymous said...

Practice what you preach, B. Go outside of your Midwesterner circle. Don't just go to Gabe's Wisco restaurants, and the cafes in Harlem and Brooklyn where only the Midwesterner transplants hang out. Talk to the natives. Respect those and who were here before. Don't look down on them and be supercilious. Don't push them out just because they don't remind you of your middle-American values. Next thing, you'd be lobbying for a Native New Yorker Removal Act. In the meantime, enjoy the artichoke dip.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with "real New Yorkers" and "transplants." Plenty of "natives" shop at chains, eat at Applebee's, view this as "progress." Plenty wouldn't think of it. Same for "transplants."

Grand St. said...

Anon 10:52 a.m.-

Let's not forget a third group: tourists, more than 50 million a year (up from 30 million a year in 1990) - the large majority from these United States.

Safe bet that a few of 'em are having lunch at Bubba Gump's right now.

Brian Dubé said...

The Mermaid Parade is one of the most unique events and my favorite NYC parade. Sad that Old New York is vanishing even there. Hope to see the same creative costuming I've come to enjoy and that the actual paraders keep the spirit of Coney Island alive.

laura said...

anon 9:01 june 14th- yes, laura does speak that way, its called "keeping it real". see interview" jeremiahs vanishing new york, july 30th 2010.

Anonymous said...

The people that will be going to this Applebee's are the locals who feel they're underserved when it comes to restaurant options. Some even welcome chains. Whenever I walk by Applebee's in Bed Stuy ("Bed Stuy's favorite neighbor...) I only see local families from around the area, no transplants or "hipsters".

Anonymous said...

A lot of transplants I know didn't come here for, nor go to chain restaurants because they know how common they are in the suburbs and smaller cities.

It seems a lot of local people especially those in lower income neighborhoods don't mind the chain restaurants because they've never had access to them before like you do in the burbs.

I think the idea of an Applebee's at Coney Island is stupid, but if the neighborhood locals are happy about it and it created a few jobs then so be it. Sigh.

laura r. said...

anon 12:01 june 17th: yes we always had chains. "kentucky fried" is as gross as you can get. somehow "nedicks" fits in. somethings fit in NYC/coney, some dont. the small unique places were the best. like the kinish man walking on the beach. do they still have a kinish man? i havnt been to an "applebees" or seen one. how does the menu differ from howard johnsons? "J" do tell! ok & just to fit in one more negative comment: there's something really trailer parkish deep south white trashy gracelandy about the mermaid parade. maybe its just campy?? i hate that ascetic. SO americana!!!

Anonymous said...

i second anon 9:01...i have trouble understanding the comments this laura makes...are you sure shes not a troll

Anonymous said...

I have to chime in on the below comment. I work for the company and there is no Christina Dell Angello who works for us. We have only 4 people in our marketing department...and none are with that name. Also, please keep in mind that Applebee's is franchised owned and we ONLY own and operate the Applebee's in the 5 borough's, Westchester and Rockland counties. Also, Applebee's noticed that people bring their kids to this event and we wanted to establish a place for them to relax, eat, and still enjoy the parade...THAT is why we said it would be Family Friendly..that is the type of restaurant we are and despite all the fun costumes (or lack-there-of) outside, we wanted to keep to our roots and provide that for the families who attended the parade!

"Here is an example of how Applebee's runs its business: I received an email from the restaurant's marketing and Project Manager, Christina Dell Angello, asking for "memorabilia, photos, books, private collections, etc. . . that would "be beneficial toward our design element" for the new Applebee's in Coney Island." They wanted this material for the "interior decor."
I asked how much their budget was and she told me" $250"!! As a professional photographer, I found this to be an outrageous rip-off and insulting as well. You can't even get a large photo FRAMED for $250! They can spend $200,000 for a shark-killing tank but when it comes to paying artists they get really, really cheap"