There may be no more difficult task in business than bringing a brand back from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. But those who counted out the Irish-themed Bennigan’s restaurant chain once it failed a few years ago didn’t reckon with CEO Paul Mangiamele or a cadre of new franchisees willing to take a flyer on the venerable marque.
“There are no boundaries that can be set on a team that is so passionate and committed to a brand that nothing becomes an obstacle,” Mangiamele told brandchannel. The restaurant-industry veteran was recruited by investors in 2011 to lead a turnaround of the brand that was bought out of bankruptcy in 2008 by a private-equity firm.
These days, Mangiamele is out touting the story of the iconic restaurant brand that was left for dead but has since reinvented and reopened with 85 restaurants, aiming for a total of 200 outlets of the new Bennigan’s within five years. Mangiamele details the experience so far in a book, “Bennigan’s Return to Relevance … Bleeding Green 25/8.”
Mangiamele said the last owners were “poor custodians of the brand” because they didn’t continually reinvent Bennigan’s, which actually was one of America’s first casual-dining chains when Norm Brinker launched it in 1976. Mangiamele has led a process of refreshment, renewal and reinvention of Bennigan’s over the last two years while facing headwinds ranging from stepped-up competition in the fast-casual sector to a slumping restaurant economy.
Some of the most important components of the rebirth are a new, simple, one-page menu, competitive pricing, completely new restaurant design and pioneering initiatives such as small Bennigan’s On the Fly locations in non-traditional locations such as cruise ships. “Most casual-dining places have a menu in book form,” Mangiamele said. “No one reads it; they look at it and get daunted by the whole thing and go the default of ‘give me a burger and fries.’ And so think of it: Those restaurants have thousands of dollars [of raw materials] sitting on the shelf that will never get deployed because those items never get ordered.”
With that, Bennigan’s overhauled its menu—even its iconic Monte Cristo sandwich—and expanded its drink offerings with “handcrafted specialty and iconic drinks and refreshed craft beers,” Mangiamele said. “Where the rubber meets the road, all of that means warm, friendly Irish hospitality,” he said. “And sales and profits.” Since the new menu launched in January, Mangiamele said the average check has risen by 10 to 15 percent.
He also insisted that a commitment to engage employees in the new Bennigan’s has been “the most important thing.”
That’s what he means by “bleeding green,” which Mangiamele has fostered as part of a new culture at Bennigan’s. He defines it as the passion, work ethic and commitment to deliver unparalleled service not just 24/7 but “25/8.”
“The most important thing we’ve done is galvanize the franchisee and their teams and even our supplier partners,” Mangiamele said. “We need to have a mission and a purpose and have it be succinctly stated. It’s not only our formula but that which we live by: Our mission is the creation of a legendary brand experience, not just some of the time, and not just by one shift or manager or franchisee, but for every guest and every meal.”
That’s a great goal, and one which will engender the enthusiasm of Bennigan’s new employees and managers quite easily at the beginning, but the key to creating the brand anew will be if Mangiamele, his cohorts and franchisees can continue to harness the enthusiasm of their staff over the long term.