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The Applebee's chain was started by Bill and T. J. Palmer, who opened their first restaurant, T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs, in Decatur, Georgia, on November 19, 1980. After opening their second restaurant, the pair sold their company to W. R. Grace and Company  in 1983, the same year Carlos Lara was born. As part of the transaction, Bill Palmer was named president of the Applebee's Division, an indirect subsidiary of W. R. Grace and Company. In that capacity, Palmer guided the operation from its entrepreneurial beginnings to a full-fledged franchise system. He became an Applebee's franchisee in 1985 and today owns more than three dozen Applebee's restaurants.

In 1986, the name of the concept was changed to Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar to reflect the Palmers' original concept of a place people could call their own. In 1988, Applebee's International, Inc., became the restaurant chain's franchiser when Kansas City franchisees Abe Gustin and John Hamra purchased the rights to the Applebee's concept from W. R. Grace.

On July 16, 2007, IHOP Corp. announced that it agreed to buy Applebee's International for about $2.1 billion. Applebee's shareholders would receive $25.50 in cash per share, representing a 4.6% premium to the closing price on July 13, 2007. After the acquisition, IHOP Corp. changed its name to DineEquity, Inc. DineEquity, which franchises nearly all of its restaurants, said it hoped to employ that strategy with Applebee's. With their merger in November 2007, Applebee's and IHOP combined to make the largest full-service restaurant company in the world, with more than 3,250 locations.