4 Turnaround Tips From Bennigan’s CEO

After declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008, Bennigan’s and its beloved Monte Crisco are back, growing once again under new leadership.

While it remains to be seen whether the brand can eventually regain its once-iconic status, it’s already beat some strong odds as it is not common for a restaurant chain to re-emerge after filing for bankruptcy. However, according to Bennigan’s current president and CEO Paul Mangiamele -- the man at the helm of the franchise’s resurgence – consumers didn’t abandon Bennigan’s, the brand was brought down by what Mangiamele describes as “brand drift.”

“Brand drift is an insidious disease that happens to many brands when the brand moves away from the many elements that made it successful in the first place,” says Mangiamele. “You need to constantly reinvent yourself so you don’t lose relevance.”

Founded by famous restaurateur Norman Brinker, Bennigan’s first opened in 1976 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Irish pub-themed restaurant set out to fill the gap between fast food and fine dine, becoming one of America’s first casual-dining chains.

When Mangiamele became CEO of Bennigan’s in 2011 -- three years after the bankruptcy that closed 150 corporate stores overnight -- his goal was to return the legacy brand to its roots, while giving it new life in the 21st century. This included rebuilding the strong emotional connection that existed with Bennigan’s patrons around the globe.

“Emotional connections build lifetime guests,” says Mangiamele.

With over 35 years’ experience in the restaurant, hospitality and franchising industries, Mangiamele understands the fierce fight for market share that exists in the restaurant business. “There’s always more seats than business,” says Mangiamele.

Mangiamele says part of his plan is to respect the Bennigan’s legacy while introducing new initiatives such as a different prototype, a chef-driven menu, a refreshed drink line-up, updated training methodologies, and forward-thinking marketing initiatives. He is also investing in the fractured Bennigan’s franchisees that suffered from the loss of a corporate parent. Some 137 franchisees remained open after the Bennigan’s bankruptcy.

“The most important thing we’ve done is galvanize the franchisee and their teams,” says Mangiamele. “All of us together will always be smarter than one of us.”

Today, Bennigan’s has nearly 100 domestic and international restaurants, and there are agreements to develop over 30 to 40 new restaurants in the next few years across the U.S. International openings are slated for the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, Cyprus and Korea. The franchise also continues to see growth in same-store sales, according to Mangiamele.

Mangiamele, author of “Bennigan’s Return to Relevance…Bleeding Green 25/8,” offered the following tips to franchisees of all industries based on his turnaround strategy for Bennigan’s:

No. 1: Clearly determine your mission, vision, strategy, tactics and culture.

Before assembling teams, strategies and tactics, you must set a solid mission and vision statement. Initiative development is also critical to the achievement of your mission, vision and financial objectives for your brand. The five initiatives that are imperative to the success of the Bennigan’s brand include: creating and sustaining momentum; developing habitual dependability; maintaining a continuous connection at every level of our business; visualizing our “big picture” outcome; and finally, developing a significant point of differentiation to make our brand unique.

No. 2: Build an A+ team.

The most important and critical characteristic to look for in an employee is attitude. You cannot train attitude, force someone to smile, or make people have enthusiasm for your brand. Find team players that have a 25/8 work ethic – employees who can help not only achieve your objectives, but also exceed them. Find the “business athlete,” somebody with work ethic and dedication who will make sacrifices to contribute to the team objective. At Bennigan’s, we want team members that “Bleed (Irish) Green.”

No. 3: Go ABCD.

Creating a legendary experience for guests requires going “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty,” or ABCD as we refer to it at Bennigan’s. We expect everyone in the Bennigan’s family, from the executives to the busboys, to go the extra mile and help create an emotional connection with our customers. For instance, when one little boy at a Bennigan’s in Chicago left his favorite Lego model at his table, his Bennigan’s server personally delivered it to the boy’s home, delighting the boy and his family. We recognize and reward employees who demonstrate going ABCD, as recognition strengthens performance and ABCD-type performance is contagious.

No. 4: Leverage neighborhood marketing.

Neighborhood marketing is a system that concentrates on building your business from the inside out, all within a five- to 10-minute drive from your company’s front door. Given the competitive marketplace, you can’t open your doors at 11:00 a.m. and just wait for people to come. Practice getting outside and introducing yourself and your company to the people and businesses within a ten-mile radius of you. Own your trade area and go out of your way to make emotional connections with your “neighbors.”