Nostalgia fuels appetite for Bennigan's again

Posted Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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It was her toddler's birthday, but Nicole Moure decided to take the family to her husband's favorite restaurant, Bennigan's, which reopened four months ago in what had been a defunct TGI Friday's in southwest Fort Worth.

Edward Jr. had the mac and cheese while his parents took turns deconstructing the chain's battered-and-fried Monte Cristo club sandwich. They gave up finishing it, but they'll be back again and again, promised Nicole Moure.

The Moures are among those American consumers who harbor a nagging nostalgia for Bennigan's, once a vibrant chain of more than 400 stores. The operation was built up by Dallas restaurant legend Norm Brinker, then sold to Pillsbury, followed by Grand Metropolitan before being acquired, and all but put to death along with sibling chain Steak & Ale, by the late billionaire John Kluge's Metromedia Co.

The 2008 Chapter 7 bankruptcy closed company-owned stores, wiping out about two-thirds of the chain overnight, when the then-93-year-old Kluge simply walked away from the concept. The liquidation left franchisees without corporate support, damaging their investment if they tried to sell their restaurants without any brand leadership.

"It didn't just look into the abyss, it moved in," said Paul Mangiamele, CEO of the resurrected franchise operation. An Olympic boxing hopeful turned serial restaurant executive who got an early start at Fort Worth's Mama's Pizza chain under the late Chris Farkas, he blames bad management and "brand drift" for the Bennigan's 2008 debacle.

Mangiamele himself had been Metromedia's global development chief in the late 1990s, and had worked for numerous other hotel and restaurant companies, including TGI Fridays, Radisson Hotels and Dalt's American Grill. He also owned and operated a Pizzeria Uno for a spell, giving him a franchisee's tableside view.

If Bennigan's succeeds, no doubt much would be attributed to Mangiamele's aggressive, if not infectious, enthusiasm for the Irish-themed casual dining concept. Dallas-based Bennigan's Franchising Co., acquired by Fortress Investment Group in late 2008 from a creditor, also secured the rights to defunct Steak & Ale, for which Mangiamele says he's working up a new prototype for an eventual relaunch.

In the meantime, he is focused on reviving the fortunes of Bennigan's with the vigor of a televangelist going full tilt. Embracing hyperbole aimed at building team spirit, he talks of "bleeding green," and being committed "25/8."

The chain counts 85 stores, with more than half located overseas. And it's a more crowded market than when it helped invent the casual dining segment. Bennigan's is attempting a feisty re-entry at a time when national chains are stepping up expansion, having recovered their footing from the recession, said retail consultant Bill Stinneford of Fort Worth's Buxton Group.

"They're up against places like TGI Fridays, Chili's, Buffalo Wild Wings and the Twin Peaks of the world for the after-work business, not to mention local independents," Stinneford said. "They're all competing for the same type of customer. And it's not 'location, location, location,' but 'customer, customer, customer.'"

Mangiamele has urged franchisees to remodel, often at a cost topping $300,000, while finding new investors to buy $35,000 franchises around the country and abroad. It costs about $800,000 to $1 million to build a store in Texas.

And he has created prototypes for airports and university campuses. One is a fast-casual spinoff called Bennigan's on the Fly. Investors are encouraged to reopen former company-owned locations that might have been empty for years, or convert failed restaurants from rivals.

Two Bennigan's were to open Friday in the Gulf state of Dubai; Mexico's sixth Bennigan's starts up in early April, the CEO said. One is scheduled to do business in the troubled Mediterranean island of Cyprus this summer, and one each in Fayetteville, Tenn.; and Tyson's Corner, Va. Another three or four could also open, depending on permits, weather and construction speed by the end of 2013, he said.

All this has led him to predict: "We'll be able to double the size of the chain in the next five years to 200 restaurants."

The CEO believes he has forged a strategy where nostalgic customers like Edward Moure feel like they are back in a Bennigan's, but with a number of improvements.

The "shotgun" bar is now three-sided, Tiffany glass lamps are back and exposed brick has become a design element.

"And we don't just have a Monte Cristo, we have the best in the world -- with a better cut of meat, a better profile cheese," Mangiamele claims. Another signature sandwich, the Turkey O'Toole, also has upgraded ingredients and the flat-iron steak "can be cut with a fork," he insists.

There's no longer cheese soup and hyper-rich "Death by Chocolate" desserts on the menu, which doesn't mean Bennigan's has taken the health food route, despite a solid selection of salads. It cooks with a nontransfat and more expensive canola oil, but unlike a growing number of national chains, it refuses to disclose nutritional information on any of its dishes.

"The truth is that when you come to Bennigan's, it is to treat yourself and be a little indulgent," Mangiamele replied when asked about the refusal to disclose calories and fat content. And it's up to the customer to decide, he asserts. "After all, the No. 1-selling item on our menu is our World Famous Monte Cristo. With that said, you can be as good or as bad as you want just about in any restaurant. It's about the choices we make."

Sunny Shaikh, a Colleyville resident who owns the new Fort Worth Bennigan's near Hulen Mall, sat down to a cheeseburger but turned down the three varieties of fried potatoes on offer, explaining he'd put on too much weight if he ate them every day.

The 44-year-old restaurateur was gung-ho after serving hundreds of St. Patrick's weekend partiers inside and in a mammoth tent with live bands, two DJs and some employees putting in 10-hour days.

Mangiamele, he marveled, is available for a quick consult. "I can pick up the phone at any time and talk to the CEO."

And Shaikh needed advice for his first big event, which was needed to help re-establish the brand. He called the CEO to ask how much should he spend. "Paul said $20,000," said Shaikh, who had originally planned on half that amount. He said it was a good investment.

Initially, Shaikh's banker was reluctant to loan to a Bennigan's franchise, mindful of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy of the parent corporation. And lending to any restaurant is risky, Mansfield Community Bank not having extended such a loan in five years, said its president, Lance Walker.

But Walker was swayed both by Shaikh's description of the new Bennigan's concept and by his 15-year track record as a Mansfield customer. Shaikh, who studied accounting at the University of Texas-Dallas, ran a convenience store in Hillsboro, then a large truck stop, Drivers, on Fort Worth's north side. He transformed the underperforming business, increasing revenues to $18 million from $7 million annually, before selling and buying the Bennigan's franchise.

It's a $1 million investment, of which "70 to 75 percent" is borrowed through Mansfield's Woodhaven Bank unit with the Small Business Administration partially guaranteeing the loan, he said.

"I am living my American Dream," said the Pakistan-born entrepreneur, whose restaurant employs 120 full- and part-time workers.

At the far end of the restaurant, the Moures were finishing their lunch.

"I was bummed when Bennigan's went out of business" in Fort Worth, said Edward Moure, who would visit his favorite eatery on visits. "The cheeseburgers are awesome."

Now that they are living here, the family plans to return often.

But not every week, Nicole adds. "Maybe every other week. I don't want to get a heart attack."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter

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