Americans are experiencing the highest levels of stress in history. A recent American Psychiatric Association Public Opinion Poll found that 1 in 4 of us are significantly more anxious than we were last year. And 91 percent of Generation Z reports physical and emotional symptoms associated with stress, like anxiety and depression, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual “Stress in America” survey.

Some companies, like Applebee’s, are betting on people seeking to de-stress with cheap happy hours and decadent dishes (think pasta with cream sauce, fried chicken tenders, and the like). John Cywinski, the president of the popular chain, neatly summed up their business strategy in an interview with CNN Business: “Americans are stressed,” he said, “When stressed, they tend to go to comfort food … and we’re pretty darn good at comfort food.”

Since Cywinski’s arrival at Applebee’s in March 2017, the brand has set a 14-year record by increasing same-store sales by 7.7 percent in the third quarter, and is outperforming comparable restaurants, CNN reports.

Profits had been lagging in prior years, in part, because the restaurant chain was trying to appeal to a niche market of health-conscious eaters by providing more healthful menu options. But Cywinski told CNN that the chain struggled because it “took its eye off its core guest and lost sight of who Applebee’s is, and what Applebee’s stands for.” What it’s about, Cywinski said, is “making people hungry [and] satisfying them … So that doesn’t mean small portions, it doesn’t mean pursuing niche trends.”

As Stephen Anderson, a senior equity research analyst covering restaurants at Maxim Group, put it in the same interview: “They’re not going after the avocado toast millennials … They’re going after middle America.”

We’re all vulnerable to the kinds of branding restaurants like Applebee’s traffic in, but Marion Nestle, a distinguished professor at New York University and author of the new book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, emphasizes: “Like so many companies selling food that makes no pretense of being healthy, Applebee’s pitch is class-based. [It] deliberately targets people who want lots of food, reasonably tasty, in large amounts, and with plenty of sugary and alcoholic drinks along with it.”

Daniel Crossley, the executive director of the Food Ethics Council, an independent body in London that lobbies the government for more ethical food and farming standards, says a little indulgence is fine, but he warns that it can be challenging for certain people to refrain from making it a habit: “A bit of comfort food from time to time doesn’t do most of us any harm, but we should remember that some can get trapped in a vicious cycle of emotional eating and mental distress.”

Study after study backs up his point. Stress induces emotional eating and encourages excess consumption of comfort food, which some medical literature suggests can exacerbate mental illness and increase the anxiety that people are already experiencing by making them feel sluggish, lazy, or bad about their bodies. So a restaurant chain playing directly to our culture’s mental health vulnerabilities can be especially worrisome.

As Nestle reminds us, restaurants are not public health agencies. “They are businesses with stockholders to please.” But Crossley takes a different view: “Food brands have a responsibility here,” he says. “They must not seek to capitalize on people’s vulnerabilities and treat us simply as objects to sell to.”

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  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.