5 Minutes With… Zane Tankel

Zane Tankel's company, Apple Metro, Inc., has kept right on growing and has avoided the hit that most restaurants and hospitality businesses have taken over the last year. This year, Apple Metro, which owns and operates several Applebee’s and Chevys Fresh Mex restaurants in the New York area, as well as Zanaro’s Italian restaurant in White Plains, has doubled their office space, and built a 100-person, state-of the-art training facility at their headquarters in Harrison, NY.

Tankel also opened three new restaurants—one in Little Market in the Bronx, one on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and a third one on 125th Street in Harlem. He has identified three more sites, negotiated those leases, and is planning the construction of three more restaurants. Tankel’s accomplishments were recognized when he was awarded the 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year for the hospitality, construction, and development industries by Ernst & Young. Daria Meoli spoke with Zane about how he found opportunity in tough times.

Daria Meoli: What has Apple-Metro been doing to accommodate growth?

Zane Tankel: We brought in executive vice-president/chief operating officer, Miguel Fernandez, from Applebee’s International (franchisor), and he’s made a huge difference. Miguel was able to identify three new area directors, because they all had worked at Applebee’s International. We interviewed, hired, and relocated a director of operations, whom we relocated from Columbia, Missouri; an area director from Burlington, Vermont; and we brought in another area director from California.

DM: Why take on the expense and hassle of relocating employees instead of hiring locally?

ZT: Because we wanted best in class. Some areas of the country, obviously, were hit much worse by this economy than other areas. The Heartland, where the industrial belt is, and the West Coast were really suffering, so we were able to get best in class from those areas. And those are just the executive moves.

We upgraded general managers in several of our restaurants. General managers are the salt of the earth for us. These guys are on the ground running the restaurant day-to-day, and I feel each of them has to run their own company. We were able to really get some great people who we were comfortable would make it through the economic tsunami.

DM: How do you explain your success in this difficult time?

ZT: We made a very conscious decision to keep growing when things started to really go south economically. We had coincidentally just refinanced our company, so we could have kept the money in the bank, hunkered down, and waited for the storm to pass. Or we could aggressively go out and find opportunities. I like to say we learned to dance in the rain.

We saw big opportunities in the economic environment. One was upgrading the management. Another was finding great sites at very attractive prices, because as people started to fold up and close, there were no new tenants looking for space. At the end of the meeting where we made the strategic decision to take advantage of the decline in real estate prices, Miguel, who had just come out of the big corporate world of Applebee’s International, which does about $2.2 billion per year, came to me and said, “Well, Zane, what plans are we making if this doesn’t work?” And I said, “Miguel, we won’t need plans if it doesn’t work. There’s not a lot you can do about it if we are wrong. You just fasten your seatbelt and hang on.”