On Veteran’s Day, a surge of gratitude envelops communities as people generously express appreciation for the sacrifices made by veterans. Acts of kindness, heartfelt gestures, and a collective acknowledgment of their service create a palpable atmosphere of support, symbolizing a nation’s profound gratitude for those who have defended its freedoms. No one portrays these sentiments better than Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, for nearly a decade with its free meal offering to veterans.
Doherty Enterprises, owner of multiple Applebee’s restaurants across Long Island, has been generously feeding hundreds of veterans and service members, now a time-honored tradition that has swept the country, adopted by dozens of other businesses, large and small, all looking to spread a little gratitude for those who have honorably served the nation.
Doherty Enterprises is a franchisee of three iconic national brands, Applebee’s, Chevy’s Fresh Mex and Panera Bread. Doherty also owns and operates two independent, proprietary concepts, The Shannon Rose Irish Pub and Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas for a total of more than 140 restaurants in New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Florida.
Now, just days away from the monumental give-back, we had a chance to speak with Kurt Pahlitzsch, vice president of casual dining at Doherty Enterprises, about what it takes to pull off such a tremendous offering each year.
“Doherty was one of the first restaurants to really put something like this together, maybe in 2002 or 2003; we were definitely offering meals to veterans on Veteran’s Day before Applebee’s corporate had started doing it,” Pahlitzsch said.
Pahlitzsch said he could not confirm whether Doherty Enterprises was the inspiration for the Veteran’s Day meal offer spreading across the nation, through its corporate channels.
“This all began with Tim Doherty [Doherty Enterprises owner] and the executive team; the business is family-owned and when you sit in one of our restaurants, you will see real pictures of real people in the community on the walls,” Pahlitzsch said. “We’ve always been focused on doing whatever we can to make the neighborhood better; we always do our best to be welcoming to everyone. Early on, we wanted to make sure we put value on the day for veterans in the community.”
Pahlitzsch said the Hicksville Applebee’s might have once had the highest veteran attendance across Long Island, especially early in the Veteran’s Day offerings because of its proximity to Levittown, historically known for its high veteran population, being ground zero for WWII veterans returning home from war to return to civilian life and start their families.
“Back in the day, I remember meeting the guy that [might have given] the command to bring the U.S. Navy into Japan Harbor,” Pahlitzsch said. “We gave him the microphone and let him recite the whole command over the PA system at Applebee’s in Hicksville; you could have heard a pin drop in that place that day.”
He said due to the aging veteran population on Long Island, their Farmingville location has seen increased numbers in recent years.
“Doherty took the offer a step further years ago and would go to Northport and feed all the veterans that couldn’t leave the VA compound. We fed about 2,500 people (veterans and their families) one afternoon there,” Pahlitzsch said.
Pahlitzsch said the Applebee’s staff across all their locations go above and beyond on that day, often offering to work on their scheduled off days because of the goodwill.
“It’s the one day of the year when all of the staff members come together,” he said. “It’s such a feel-good vibe that day.”
On Veteran’s Day, Pahlitzsch estimates that Doherty’s Applebee’s locations serve 20,000 to 30,000 meals, depending on the day of the week that the holiday falls on, what the weather is doing and how many other conflicting Veteran’s Day ceremonies, parades and other events are happening.
“We work really hard to provide a high-quality menu that caters to everybody,” Pahlitzsch said. “Where else can you get a full steak dish [for free]; we don’t shrink the portion; it’s a legit dish that if you ordered on the menu, on any other day, it is exactly what you are getting.”
The Veteran’s Day menu ranges from Fiesta Lime Chicken, a house sirloin steak, Oriental salad, a bacon burger and several other options. The dishes can be cooked to order especially for those who have dietary restrictions also. The kitchen is accommodating.
“One thing I can say about our Veteran’s Day offering is that we are consistent,” Pahlitzsch said. “Veterans have been great partners for us in the communities, not just on Veteran’s Day; we see them all year long with their friends and families; we know them, we know their names and their kids’ names. It is a wonderful partnership and experience.”
Editor’s note: I am a veteran and I appreciate Applebee’s gesture. I have been dining with them on Veteran’s Day for probably close to 20 years. Among my own veteran friends, it is a long-standing tradition to share a meal together, to meet at the same Applebee’s year-after-year and catch up with each other. This year, however, I was unable to attend and did not get to see my veteran family for the holiday. The tradition, nonetheless, means a lot to each of us.