Q&A: Paul Mangiamele, Bennigan’s President & CEO

Bennigan's Franchising Company

Bennigan’s, a high-energy neighborhood restaurant and pub is committed to creating a Legendary experience for every guest, every meal, every day.  While closing in on nearly 100 restaurants, Bennigan’s is progressively building upon the resurgence of the brand with improvements introduced after Paul Mangiamele took over as chief executive in May 2011 to bring the iconic American brand back to its former glory.

We caught up with Mangiamele, who answered several questions about the brand and the company’s remarkable comeback.

You joined Bennigan’s last May and championed the brand’s turnaround. It seems to be going well.

Yes, it is, but first I want to be clear that I have the utmost respect for Norman Brinker, a friend, mentor and the icon behind Bennigan’s. That being said, like so many companies in the 30 year old age range, midlife just happened and we became a victim of “brand drift” over time. When I arrived on the scene, Bennigan’s was ripe for turnaround, rebranding, a renaissance…you can call it all of those things, maybe even a revolution. But you can be sure of one thing: it’s going to Legendary, because the writing’s already on the wall.

Can you give us some examples? What kind of specific changes and expansion has taken place?

Sure. Speaking strictly about expanding our footprint, during the first three months of 2012 we opened new restaurants in El Salvador and South Korea. Our Chicago location has now joined Appleton, WI to showcase Bennigan’s renovated prototype corporate store.  We’re still seeking the perfect location for our third corporate store in the Dallas area where we will house robust training, R&D and menu testing operations; we’ll finalize that location later this year. In all, over 15 restaurants are currently in the development, permitting or construction phases in Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland, Washington DC, New Jersey and Florida, as well as internationally in Cyprus, Mexico and Dubai. Our 33 domestic locations stretch from San Francisco to Miami and we’re committed to filling the space between with excellent franchisee partnerships. Our 47 international locations share the reputation for “bleeding green” and you can be certain to enjoy Legendary Irish Hospitality at any Bennigan’s, whether it’s in Merida, Mexico or Thessaloniki, Greece.


How about changes inside the restaurants?

That change is Legendary too. We began with a deep analytical dive into where we were so we could set teams, strategies and tactics in motion to get to where we want to be. Over the course of six months, we took the pulse of our internal and external guests. A nostalgic public was hungry for the high-energy experience they fondly remembered from the 1980s. Early feedback shows that once again, we’re giving a Legendary brand experience to every guest, every meal, every day. This is our rallying cry to bring all constituents together and work toward the same goal. We are friendly Irish Hospitality.  We bleed green.  We don’t just have bartenders; we have rock star mixologists.  We don’t just have great food; we have chef-driven, unique new offerings but guests can still enjoy favorites like the Monte Cristo, Turkey O’Toole as well as signature huge Irish hamburgers.

Our internal guests, our employees, told us they wanted to be part of a winning team. I like to call us “business athletes,” which happens to be especially appropriate with the summer games this season. World-class champions don’t just happen, they must “Live” it with their entire hearts, minds and bodies. For us to win, our team members must do the same. We must bleed green, 25/8… we must “Live” Bennigan’s.

Can you give us an example of how you “Live” Bennigan’s? 

I’ll give you two. First, Hannah Hobbs. She’s a server in Borger, TX who found a full beer and a note on her bar after two sailors left for the evening. The note was a tribute to their fallen buddy, Frankie Toner. With tears in her eyes and before pouring it out at 11pm, Hannah snapped a photo of that tribute. She posted it to her personal Facebook page, it went viral with over two million “likes” and re-energized a movement at Bennigan’s to support our military and our veterans. Spurred by Hannah’s spirit and action, we created Bennigan’s Wall of Heroes. Now anyone can snap a photo toast to any military person, we’ll post it on our Wall and make a donation to Operation Homefront. And just last month, we announced a Veteran’s Incentive Program to encourage more veterans to become franchisees by waiving our $35,000 franchise fee. Now I would say Hannah bleeds green!

Second, as proof of our commitment to quality team members and the way we are intentionally making Legendary changes, we recently announced Mike Understein, Mike Gabriel and Scott Foster have come on board. Understein will lead our new focus on catering and Foster brings over 35 years to Bennigan’s as our new chef of record. Gabriel assumes the role of Director of Construction and Design and will steer the new “Bennigan’s On The Fly” and shepherd an overall rebranding as reflected in our prototypes of restaurants with smaller footprints. These executive changes, combined with menu optimization, increased operational standards, server training, local store marketing pushes, updated menus and bar offerings, uniforms, logos and signage provide the proof that we are committed to “Live” Bennigan’s, 25/8.

Tell us a bit about “Bennigan’s On The Fly” and this smaller footprint.

They are actually two separate initiatives. First, “Bennigan’s On The Fly.” It’s another example of listening to our guests. People want a fast casual option, but often find the result average. Guests are rushed through a long line, feel pressure to make a quick decision and then sit with no further interaction from the restaurant. This is where Bennigan’s can shine. We will differentiate ourselves with a guest service coordinator who will act as a Brand Ambassador. Our Irish Hospitality will be felt in everything from the way we serve guests in the line to the way we bus tables to how we engage with guests in the dining area. If they like that experience, they’ll come to our traditional restaurants and we will have created a loyal guest. You’ll find Bennigan’s On The Fly in places like airports, hotels, hospitals, cruise ships, universities and other non-traditional locations.

Second, a smaller footprint initiative is simply a move to alter new restaurant’s physical structures. For obviously efficiencies, we’ll shrink the space of a free-standing building from between 7,000 and 10,000 square feet, to a more manageable 4,500 to 5,500 square feet.

And how about the catering initiative which you mentioned Mike Understein will lead?

It’s a gutsy move, the largest initiative we have ever undertaken and, quite simply, no one else in casual dining is doing it to any scale. Watch for details as they unfold, but I can tell you we are testing this in Chicago now with phenomenal results.

Finally, your menu…your “bread and butter,” if you will. What’s going on there?

Bennigan's American Burger Plus
Bennigan's American Burger Plus

We can look at footprints and uniforms and marketing, but if we don’t continually focus on our restaurants and our menu offerings, we will fail. That’s why we just hired a world-class chef of record. Here’s another example: our quest for the best hamburger in the business. Several months ago, we initiated a thorough review of test patties available around the country and ended up with a hand-crafted, half-pound burger that’s selling out all over this summer. Our price point stayed the same, but we found the absolute best beef for our burger. It’s this type of attention to detail and excellence that lets us offer Legendary Irish Hospitality with more generous pours and portions and a menu with different ‘extra special’ values offered every day of the week. Join us as we “Live” Bennigan’s. It’ll be Legendary!

For more informations about Bennigan’s and Bennigan’s franchise opportunities, please visit www.bennigans.com.