The first seeds of Applebee's were sown when Bill Palmer was still working as a district manager for Burger King, a job that frustrated him because of the amount of money he was making for a corporation instead of himself. When his wife T.J. voiced her objections to moving from their native Atlanta when Burger King wanted to transfer him to California, it was a good excuse for him to move on, and so he became a franchisee of Billy's, a small chain of dine-in, liquor-licensed restaurants named for Bill Watson, a colorful local businessman. However, once he had turned the least successful restaurant in the chain into a profitable venture, he found himself forced to sell his half back to the chain -- able to pay off his debts, but again in the position of having made money for someone else.
Palmer and his wife went into business with another couple, Frank and Wanda Wood, along with Bob McCurley and Earl Davis, local businessmen. T.J. convinced her husband that they could have a successful restaurant without Billy Watson's name attached, and that any name would do, even one they invented themselves -- and so it was that the partners opened T.J. Applebee's Edibles and Elixirs, incorporated in 1980, with its first location in Decatur, Georgia. A number of concepts were combined to try to make Applebee's distinctive and make it stand out -- every location had a stained glass display, usually with hot air balloons in the design; various knick knacks and signs were put up inside the restaurant to give it the feel of an old-time drug store; and the menu focused on the finger foods that had become popular at the end of the disco era, when late-night dining had become more common.
Before long, the restaurant was doing well enough to add other locations, and in 1983, Palmer sold the Applebee's concept (which had now truncated its name) to W.R. Grace and Company, keeping his own five locations. In time he resigned his position as president of the Applebee's Division, and became one of the largest franchisees of the chain he had originated.