Diners at Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill in Norwalk had to wait 20 minutes for tables on a recent Sunday evening.

Standing amid signs offering dramatic meal discounts, they seemed content to bide their time. Emerging later fully sated, several said it was well worth the wait.

“They had deals for us,” said Omar Wilson, a 30-year-old Long Beach resident who ordered one of the “2 for 20” specials that includes two entrees and an appetizer for $20. “Times are tough and money is important. I thought it would be expensive, but was pleasantly surprised.”

This was the first visit to the national fast-casual chain for the night club bouncer, but he said it certainly wouldn’t be his last. That’s good news for corporate parent DineEquity Inc., the Glendale company that two years ago bought Applebee’s and its 2,000 outlets for $1.9 billion in one of the decade’s biggest restaurant deals.

For a while it seemed the acquisition might sink under its own weight. DineEquity – owner of International House of Pancakes and formerly known as IHOP Corp. – took on some $2 billion in debt to finance the deal, becoming the world’s largest full-service restaurant operator in the process with 3,300 outlets.

The plan was to breathe life into tired Applebee’s by freshening up its menu and sprucing up the restaurants – and pay for it all by franchising most of the 508 company-owned stores.

Then the economy went haywire. Franchisers couldn’t get credit. Customers dramatically slowed their casual-dining dollars. Some wondered whether Chief Executive Julia Stewart, a former Applebee’s executive who engineered the deal, would survive it all as shares hit an eight-year low.

But recent indications are that Stewart’s first steps in revitalizing the chain through new value-priced menu options may be the ingredients for success in the tight economy. Applebee’s saw its second quarter same-store sales decline only 4.3 percent, better than the industry average decline of 6.6 percent.

DineEquity’s stock, as of last week, was up 114 percent year to date – more than any other restaurant company in Los Angeles County. And since the stock’s low of $5.24 in March, last week’s price of more than $24 was more dramatic. Last month, a Morgan Keegan analyst urged investors to buy DineEquity shares – writing in his client note, “Management has proven its ability to turn around a mature brand.”

Stewart, through a company spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story. Nor would the company otherwise comment, citing its upcoming third quarter earnings announcement later this month.

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