“This has been a labor of love for me for the last dozen years,” Mangiamele says. “And so it’s how do you reintroduce it? How do you retain the energy, the vibe, the atmosphere that made it so comfortable and was key to so much of the success 57 years ago?”
It’s been a continual examination of details. Supply chain. Marinades. Keeping and updating recipes, as noted earlier. Volume pricing. Market strategy.
Regarding that last point, like Bennigan’s, Mangiamele ran a highlighter through small-town America on a map. Texas Roadhouse and even Chipotle, are among the growing number of restaurant brands holding to this approach of late. Mangiamele says Steak & Ale wants to open where it can tap into small-town hospitality and be an immediate landmark. “Let’s bring our brands to the smaller cities and never a side note, we’re the main event,” he says. “And from a franchising standpoint, it makes infinite sense because you can really create some wealth and from an operations standpoint.”
And one reason he believes the strategy will land is Steak & Ale is about the furthest thing from a fad you could find. “We recreated something that I think is truly special,” Mangiamele says. “And I’m not a cult of one, which is even better because there’s a real unfilled need and desire to experience something legendary.”
Steak & Ale, and Bennigan’s for that matter, have literal trademarked menu items, like the Oh, Baby Back Ribs and World Famous Monte Cristo. Bennigan’s was even the backdrop of 2022-released romcom “About Fate.” Mangiamele tells a story where a family a month or so ago reached out and asked if they could bring a big group to the Elgin, Illinois, location. They were celebrating an anniversary by heading up to Chicago and realized there was a Bennigan’s nearby. So the whole family showed from Florida. “That’s a perfect illustration of the strong emotional connection,” Mangiamele says.
More than anything, it’s the center of why Mangiamele refers to reviving Steak & Ale as a “crusade.” He’s been working with Arnold for the better part of four years. The final push must be as deliberate as the initial one, he says. By the time everything is organized and converted, Steak & Ale is going to “train like we’re in a Marine boot camp,” Mangiamele says. He recently listed the GM position on his personal LinkedIn account because, naturally, there was no chance Mangiamele wasn’t going to interview the candidate himself. “It’s benign dictatorship all the way through. We can’t get it wrong,” he says. “The service levels have fallen dramatically in so many different concepts and we’re going to make sure that we train, train, train, back of the house, dining, the bar, until we’ve got it right.”
Mangiamele calls it “hiring a team of eagles.” Or, phrased differently, Steak & Ale will open with a staff who understands the mission and is passionate about delivering it. “We can have the best strategy. We can have the best-looking restaurant. We can have the best menu,” Mangiamele says. “But if it’s not being executed by a team of eagles, it won’t matter. Like I’ve said before, people and passion and culture will beat strategy and tactics every day of the week.”
Personally, Mangiamele can’t help but reflect on the doorstep of reopening Steak & Ale. Atalaya Capital Management, Bennigan’s owner out of bankruptcy, originally brought Mangiamele, a former Salsarita’s CEO, to lead its turnaround. He could have leapfrogged into another opportunity afterward or joined some corporate suite. But instead, Mangiamele and his wife put their own money up. Were there naysayers at the outset? Zero question, Mangiamele says. But the flip side outweighs it all. “It’s heart rendering to be honest with you,” he says. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done. Our teams. My franchise partners. Suppliers. Because they’ve all stuck by me in such tough times.”
“The last decade has never been tougher in our industry, ever,” Mangiamele continues. “And to be able to survive and then thrive and then not shrink but grow, and then reintroduce a brand that people in their heart of hearts love, is an amazing accomplishment. And one that I share not individually, but with everyone who has ever had a touch on these brands; that cared for these brands; loved these brands. Because, again, I always talk about the emotional connection. Of course, the equation goes into how you build revenue and trial and that’s how you build sales … But there’s something more intrinsic to that—and that’s love and fun. It sounds simple, but man does it carry a lot of weight.”