Bennigan’s: Revolutionizing Casual Dining

Bennigan’s entry into food service 37 years ago launched the beginning of the casual dining niche and introduced the world to a new kind of restaurant experience.

Founded in 1976 by the iconic Norman Brinker, Bennigan’s was designed to fill the gap between fast food and fine dining while being family friendly. Opening the first location in Atlanta, GA, the space featured a full service food and beverage menu offered at an affordable and high value oriented price point.

Bennigan’s grew to around 400 restaurants before filing for bankruptcy in 2008, when all of the U.S. corporate locations closed. However, the US and International franchised restaurants remained open due to Bennigan’s tenacious franchisees and supplier partners who carried the banner and proved the strength and the value of the brand. In 2010 Bennigan’s began its renaissance and has now restored itself, once again, to the top of the casual dining segment.

Making its comeback, the new generation of Bennigan’s restaurants fit a distinct prototype to include a revamped chef-driven menu, innovative beverages, a fresh look and authentic feel. “The new restaurants are cool, hip, efficient and high energy; they are forward looking and feeling but keep vestiges of our heritage.” Paul Mangiamele, CEO, says. Smaller in size but deeper in value, the new models feature a shotgun or, one sided bar allowing for an open dining room to deliver the brands’ renowned Irish hospitality. “The new prototype produces high volumes and compelling returns on the investment,” Mangiamele explains. The first “ground up” prototype location is set to open in Fayetteville, TN this November, and franchise owners David and Melissa Hunt cannot wait to open its doors.

Experienced serial entrepreneurs, David’s most recent field of work has been building Hampton Inn hotels. This was where he recognized the need for strongly branded restaurants. Seeing Mangiamele talk about revamping Bennigan’s on a television business show, David was intrigued by his energy and vision and asked Melissa to investigate franchising options. Informed of open territory, the Hunts jumped at the opportunity. After meeting with Mangiamele and establishing a mutual fit, David attended Discovery Day in Dallas, TX. “I was amazed at the level of support detail and guidance we would be receiving from the company,” he says. Melissa, COO of their franchise, attended four weeks of training, receiving all the tools necessary to open and operate the restaurant profitably.

Reflecting on the college years he spent frequenting Bennigan’s, David says he has always been a fan of its excellent food and service and remained a loyal customer in the years to follow. “For 15 years, Bennigan’s was the restaurant that my kids, wife, and I would look forward to going to eat while on our Orlando vacations,” he laughs.

Proud to be parenting the first new prototype, David describes the new look as inviting and warm. With the Fayetteville mayor and chamber of commerce personally welcoming the Hunts’ new Bennigan’s to their fair city, David has a feeling they’re going to do “amazingly well.”

Potential franchisees must be financially sound, with a considerable net worth and liquidity to build and open their restaurants, while possessing the working capital reserves to get them through their first six months of operation. Candidates must also understand the importance of a strong work ethic and delivering “Legendary” customer service. “We’ve started a revolution where casual dining is responsible for delivering great service, and in our case, we take it from great and make it Legendary,” Mangiamele says. “We have great chef-driven food with unique flavors which are appealing to our customer base. We turn our customers into guests and those guests are loyal and ‘lifetime.’ For us, that’s what it’s all about.”

Bennigan’s franchise process is very transparent and provides franchisees with the infrastructure and resources needed to be successful. Starting with an inquiry, application process, and FDD review, the Bennigan’s team then provides training in every area of business, keeping their promise to deliver respect, trust and integrity throughout the entire process.

Offering ongoing support through the online “Bennigan’s University,” Bennigan’s corporate team is available to assist franchisees all day, everyday. “It’s not 24/7 with us, it’s 25/8,” Mangiamele says. “If our franchisees need anything, all they have to do is pick up the phone.” Bennigan’s 15 corporate staff members visit restaurants, stay informed with their markets, handle the social media, and provide four-walls marketing to ensure every location looks and operates to Bennigan’s high standards. “The corporate team bleeds green, and that speaks to the passion they have for the brand and is represented in the strength of the support we give our franchisees,” Mangiamele says.

Franchising since the 90s, today Bennigan’s has 60 franchise groups representing 100 restaurants throughout 15 states and 12 countries. Growing at a rate of one new restaurant a month, Mangiamele is pushing to double the growth rate and has 80 new restaurants for the U.S and internationally in the works. With a new generation of franchisees internationally, one of the latest additions to the Bennigan’s family has been awarded a Master license for the country of India, opening 50 restaurants over the next several years. In addition to this exceptional development, two new locations will be opening in Mumbai next spring. “All companies are only as good as their weakest areas, and for us to have a strong contingent of franchises is gratifying,” Mangiamele says.

Bennigan’s also recently introduced “Bennigan’s On-the-Fly” restaurants. These fast casual, non-traditional restaurants will be located in high-traffic markets such as airports, university food courts, and hospitals. “Wherever the arithmetic makes sense, we’ll look into developing,” Mangiamele says. “We’re moving strongly forward again, and that’s a testament to the strength of our brand, our franchisees, corporate staff and the great supplier partners we have our on team.”

The initial fee to own a Bennigan’s franchise is $35,000 with a royalty of four percent and an additional one percent going to marketing. Significantly lower than other casual dining franchise organizations, Mangiamele is looking to attract potential franchisees that are looking for strength and value in an iconic brand. As part of IFA’s VetFran initiative, Operation Enduring Opportunity, Bennigan’s is prepared to waive the initial fee for veterans who qualify for Patriot Financing and are honorably discharged. Bennigan’s has also reduced the initial fees for other veterans. “We do this to help these brave men and women, who protected our freedoms, to matriculate back into the business mainstream and let them sprout their entrepreneurial wings by assisting, where we can, by getting them into the business world,” he explains.

“We represent a brand that started 37 years ago, and instead of being a victim of ‘brand drift,’ we’ve reemerged as a proud, strong and relevant brand,” Mangiamele says. With a wink and a nod to their rich Irish heritage, Bennigan’s strives to deliver a genuine Legendary experience to all guests. “It’s not just service it’s Legendary service; it’s not just an experience it’s a Legendary experience; it’s not just good food with ample portions, it’s chef-driven. While we all want to make money, it is not our sole motivation.  We have found that the more we are focused on the right things like a strong value proposition and delivering on our ‘Legendary’ promise to our guests, the increased profit becomes a byproduct. A great end result for any business,” Mangiamele concludes.

-Jessica Spoto

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