Paul M. Mangiamele, who recently took over as president and chief executive of the Dallas-based Bennigan’s Franchising Co., said he is completing a “full-circle” review of the legacy casual-dining chain.
Mangiamele, 58, succeeded David Goronkin, who earlier this spring left Bennigan’s to head Real Mex Restaurants Inc. Mangiamele has a broad background in retail and restaurants, from serving as president and chief executive of Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, a fast-casual Mexican chain, to working with Buffets Inc.’s Original Roadhouse Grill, Carlson Companies’ Dalt’s Classic American Diner, and in global development for Bennigan’s.
Bennigan’s Franchising Co. acquired the Bennigan’s brand in 2008 after parent S&A Restaurant Corp., a division of Metromedia Restaurant Group of Plano, Texas, and affiliated companies filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation and closed about 240 company units, including both Bennigan’s and Steak & Ale units.
In November the chain debuted a new 4,200-square-foot prototype in Appleton, Wis., to freshen the brand with updated menus, bar offerings, uniforms, logos and signage. The concept has an average check of $13 to $15.
Mangiamele spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News this week about his plans for the brand, which has 35 units in the United States and 45 units abroad.
VIDEO: Mangiamele's company review
What did you find attractive about heading Bennigan’s?
I love the idea of weaving the nostalgia of the brand, as it was created 35 years ago, with the new technology and the new customer focus, from the food-trending standpoint and the service standpoint and then re-introducing the Bennigan’s brand.
What is your first priority?
We need to re-engineer it, so we not only bring the look and feel of the legendary brand but also the vibe and the energy. We never quite got credit for the food quality.
What is part of that re-engineering?
We’re going to bring back the merchandising methodology of blackboard specials where we get corporate and kitchen chefs involved so that we can bring in some regional requests and also use the blackboard specials to see what changes we want to make to the menu permanently. So instead of doing limited-time offers, we’ll do blackboard specials to see what catches on.
Legacy brands in casual dining face a lot challenges. What gives Bennigan’s a leg up?
I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand for nostalgia brands. I think it breaks into two segments: People who are finding a reason to never go again and those who want to find a reason to go again. The amazing goodwill that the Bennigan’s name engenders has been phenomenal.
Why did you take on this challenge?
My entire 30 years of working in this business, from front-of-house to back-of-house and from large organizations to small, has prepared me…I know where Bennigan’s was and where we are today.
What’s your overall mission?
The right composition of a team to reintroduce the brand can have a dramatic impact on the casual-theme segment. It’s not about unlocking your doors and waiting for people to come in. You have to utilize all the technology that’s available. You have to be obsessively passionate about the service levels. You have to be obsessively passionate about the food quality. And you can accept no less from your franchisees or from your own team.
You’ve hired a social-media staffer. How important is social media?
I have millennial children and I can reach them faster texting them than I can by calling them. I want to talk the millennials, those in their 20s and 30s, and expose them to what I was exposed to at that age: the happening, high-energy, high-touch Bennigan’s…[The staffer’s] mission is to tap into the social media that’s available to us. Social media for me is word of mouth. I want to get the word on Bennigan’s to be ‘It’s hip, it’s happening, it’s now.’ It’s got great food, great service…If I can create an occasion for trial or sampling that will bring you, I’ve increased customer counts.
How are you handling commodity costs?
You can either react or pro-act. We’re dealing with a distribution and purchasing company…We’ve been able to keep a pretty good lid on our cost of goods.
What other ideas do you have to increase traffic?
You’ve got to go out and find customers. That’s why I think food trucks are a brilliant idea. How cool is it to go into a new market, expose all these people with a Bennigan’s truck to the new brand? It wouldn’t be a full-scale menu. For me, it’s all about trial and sampling. So many people have heard about these offerings, the Monte Cristo or the Turkey O’Toole, but they haven’t tried it. You can make a small one [from a truck] and give it to them.