Everyone loves a good comeback story, and I am honored and humbled to be at the helm of a classic turnaround tale.
Norman Brinker, the casual dining innovator and icon behind Bennigan's, was a wonderful friend and mentor in the business. Thirty-five years ago, he and a team of hard-working executives, many of whom grew within the business and later became CEOs of concepts we know today, built a successful brand with great integrity. When I took over as chief executive of Bennigan's Franchising Company in May 2011, I had nothing but respect for this beloved brand and the franchisees who invested their money and talents into it.
Like many casual-themed brands, Bennigan's became a victim of brand drift over time, moving away from the core elements that made it famous in the late 1980s. But a nostalgic public was hungry for the high-energy experience they fondly remembered, and the stage was set. It wasn't just time for a turnaround; it was time for a renaissance. How did we do it?
Our quest to restore the integrity of an icon began with a six-month analysis of our situation. We had to be willing to look at every piece of the business--from operations, design, and marketing to franchisees, real estate, and supply chain. Once we knew where we were, we could put the right teams, strategies, and tactics together to get where we wanted to be. And then our mission became both clear and possible: create a "legendary" brand experience for every guest, every meal, every day.
This is our rallying cry, and a very important part of bringing all constituents together and working toward the same goal. For Bennigan's to rise up from a sea of sameness and differentiate itself, it has to know where it came from, its roots, heritage, and legacy. 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 favorites like the Monte Cristo and Turkey O'Toole.
This shift in thinking and action requires alignment of the whole team. Every line cook and hostess must believe. I like to say we are business athletes. What do I mean by that? World-class champions don't just play their game, they live it. They give their entire heart, mind, and body over to the pursuit of perfection in their chosen sport. To truly create a "legendary" brand experience for every guest, every meal, every day, we must live Bennigan's. It takes every member of the team working 25/8 to put us ahead of the curve.
We defined who we are and how we were going to restore integrity to a great brand. We had a mission, and we knew our focus had to be on the food and the high-energy experience, both for our external guests and our internal guests, the employees. We rolled out a remodel at the Bennigan's flagship restaurant in Chicago, pouring all of our key learnings from both our analysis and the wisdom of our franchisees into menu optimization and increased operational standards. Servers were retrained to achieve flawless execution. Classics like the Big Irish Burger were brought back to the menu along with innovative, new American fare. We created a new Brand Ambassador position, someone who takes our Irish hospitality into the local community. Gone are the days when you just unlock the door at 11 a.m. and wait for your guests to walk in.
Sales at the Chicago restaurant went up 25 percent--a phenomenal performance in an industry that's flat to negative. One of our franchisees embraced these key initiatives and the prototype remodel and saw a significant double-digit increase as well. These successes, including a remodel and renewed focus at another corporate-owned location in Appleton, Wisc., demonstrated to our franchise partners that if we deliver on our "legendary" mission we can rebuild loyalty. A return to our roots is also a return to rebuilding an emotional connection with our guests. Transactional customers become lifetime guests, and that loyalty leads to a compelling franchise model.
In Part 2 of "Anatomy of a Comeback," I will share our plans for taking this renaissance beyond our four walls. Nontraditional real estate opportunities and new ways of marketing mean more people experiencing our friendly Irish hospitality. Part of our renewed focus is looking toward expansion through a fast-casual model called Bennigan's on the Fly. New branding we are introducing will allow for development in airports, hotels, hospitals, cruise ships, universities, and other nontraditional locations.
Last year we signed franchise agreements to develop more than 30 new restaurants, with plans to open 12 new locations domestically and internationally in 2012. Flexibility in real estate is key to this expansion, with our new prototype offering a smaller format designed to fit different site options beyond the freestanding pad.
Rekindling the fire of a great brand has been rewarding work, both for our corporate team and our franchise teams in the field. We brought the focus back where it belongs: on the people, the food, and the experience. Our clear, singular mission has resulted in a renewed energy, allowing us to add new chapters to a success story that began 35 years ago. Keep reading in the months ahead. It's going to be legendary.
Paul Mangiamele, Bennigan's president and CEO, was hired to take over the brand in May 2011. Contact him at 469-248-4419 or www.bennigans.com.
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