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Bennigan's begins brand-wide overhaul

Chief executive Paul Mangiamele says improvements at the chain’s flagship Chicago restaurant have lifted same-store sales

New Bennigan’s Franchising Co. chief executive Paul Mangiamele says he’s upbeat on the 80-unit chain’s performance after a successful reboot this summer at Bennigan’s corporate restaurant in Chicago.

Same-store sales increases at the flagship unit are running in the low double digits, said Mangiamele, who took over as chief executive in May. Same-store sales for the rest of the system are in the low single digits.

Investments at the Chicago location include an optimized menu, retraining for all servers and back-of-the-house staff, higher internal standards for operations, and a new local-store marketing push. The restaurant is one of only two company-owned stores; the other is in Appleton, Wis.

“The results speak to our new attitude,” Mangiamele said. “We’re rekindling the high energy Bennigan’s once was known for, when it was being introduced by Norman Brinker. Many operators out there are perhaps reacting by cutting portions or reducing staff. But we’ve spent into it.”

Although some cosmetic updates to the bar and seating at the Chicago location already have been made, the same-store sales increase came without the full remodel planned for the fall, Mangiamele said.

While Mangiamele wouldn’t reveal the exact cost of the improvements at the Chicago restaurant, it was paid for by the company’s marketing budget, which is 2-percent of its total sales.

The Chicago restaurant also will bring back Bennigan’s Time Crunch Lunch deal in the fall. The special offer guarantees customers to receive their meal no more than 15 minutes after ordering, and prices for the items in the offer are $5, $6 or $7. It will debut Sept. 12.

“This is a phenomenal location, but more than anything, we’ve adopted this attitude that every day is St. Paddy’s Day in our restaurants,” Mangiamele said. “We’re blending the best of our storied past with the best of what’s available today from a service standpoint, whether it’s to-go, catering or delivery.”

RELATED: Q&A: Paul M. Mangiamele of Bennigan’s Franchising Co.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc., said Bennigan’s flagship location may be benefiting from external factors, such as a lift in tourism or more employed people coming in at lunch or after work. But it also is taking steps to boost repeat traffic.

“Any time you turn to service, you can almost count on a comparable-sales increase,” Tristano said. “It’s almost like with remodeling a store when you can rely on higher trial and sales. But they’re doing it with more training for servers.”

The service focus also makes the Chicago location’s results likely to transfer to the 78 franchised locations that are located mostly in the suburbs, he added.

“On the one hand, by retraining servers, [Bennigan’s] is saying what Domino’s said all last year: ‘It wasn’t very good, but we’re making it better,’” Tristano said. “You could ask why this didn’t occur years ago, but it’s never too late to improve service.”

Mangiamele agreed, saying the operations initiatives and pending remodel were necessary to “let our loyal guest base know we’re keeping Bennigan’s fresh, clean, safe and fun.”

“We’re not going to let our brand get stale,” he said. “We want to re-engineer and reintroduce this new mentality into the marketplace. We even brought back green. We were moving away from Irish green as a brand, and now we bleed it.”

Bennigan’s is donating 35 new trees to the city of Chicago to celebrate the brand’s 35th anniversary as part of its return to green, he added.

The chain will continue to test new service, décor and menu elements in its corporate stores with input from franchisees who stuck with the brand after its 2008 bankruptcy filing in an effort to stand out from what Mangiamele calls “old, tired brands” in casual dining.

“A good franchisor leads by investing its own money to keep its operators away from brand drift,” Mangiamele said. “We’re taking the collective intelligence and experience of all the franchisees and putting it to work in a quantitative way to increase sales and unit-level profitability.”

Dallas-based Bennigan’s Franchise Co. has 20 locations under development in addition to 80 restaurants. The company is looking to add one more corporate store in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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