When you think of the great American restaurants of the past, Bennigan’s, the sit-down chain styled as an Irish pub, likely comes to mind. Its cozy dark-wood atmosphere dotted cities and suburbs around the country. TV commercials touted Bennigan’s as an ideal after-work spot where you could drink and unwind. There was even a Bennigan’s in the heart of downtown Chicago, smack-dab in the middle of Michigan Avenue, one of the busiest shopping destinations in the Midwest. But not anymore.
Time has not been kind to the restaurant, which went into bankruptcy in 2008 and shuttered all company-owned locations. The large space on Michigan Avenue was reopened by an independent owner, but in 2013 that location closed as well. Yet despite its dwindling profile, the Bennigan’s brand is, in fact, still alive and kicking. Let’s take a look at where the restaurant has been and where it’s headed.
Bennigan’s started out as a Pillsbury concept
Mashed explains that Bennigan’s was started in 1976 by a Dallas-area restauranteur named Norman Brinker. Interestingly, the development of the restaurant was in partnership with a company you might not expect: Pillsbury. Yes, that Pillsbury, home of the Doughboy himself.
A British conglomerate called Grand Metropolitan acquired the Pillsbury brand in 1989 and, by extension, acquired both Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale (another restaurant chain started by Brinker). However, because Grand Metropolitan also owned liquor manufacturers, the company was legally barred from simultaneously owning establishments that sold alcoholic beverages. As a result, Grand Metropolitan sold off the two restaurants, divorcing Bennigan’s from Pillsbury. (Grand Metropolitan eventually merged with Guinness to become spirits group Diageo, and Pillsbury is now currently owned by General Mills.)
Bennigan’s was a trend-setting restaurant
As Bennigan’s popularity grew thanks to its happy hour deals, other restaurant chains stepped into the spotlight, including TGI Fridays and Ruby Tuesday (the latter of which isn’t doing too well in recent years). The competition ended up chipping away at Bennigan’s business. As Kiplinger wrote in 2018, “Though it was an Irish-themed restaurant, its menu was similar to competitors: steak, tempura shrimp and Southwestern-style appetizers.” Indeed, many popular restaurant chains still feature similar menu items in 2022.
What kind of food does Bennigan’s serve?
In a crowded market, it’s imperative that a chain restaurant distinguish itself, and this is usually accomplished by offering an easily identifiable signature menu item. For many diners, Bennigan’s is synonymous with its Monte Cristo, one of the most intense chain restaurant sandwiches I’ve ever seen.
“Honey wheat bread layered with tender ham, roasted turkey, Swiss and American cheeses,” reads the description of the sandwich on the Bennigan’s website. “Batter-dipped, gently fried and coated with powdered sugar. Served with red raspberry preserves for dipping.”
It was as indulgent as you’re imagining, as any battered, deep-fried, cheese-filled, sugar-dusted, fruit-topped entree would be. The other items on Bennigan’s menu are stalwart casual American dining fixtures such as burgers, ribs, wings, nachos, a few steaks, fish and chips, and a variety of chicken dishes. (and don’t forget the Death by Chocolate martini.)
The decline of Bennigan’s
In 2008, Bennigan’s suffered a tremendous blow to its business during the height of the Great Recession. It filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, closing 150 corporate-owned restaurants all at once. More than 100 locations remained, but those, too, dwindled down to nearly nothing in the following years. According to the company’s website, there are currently 26 locations, some of which are not brick-and-mortar restaurants but rather ghost kitchens and smaller-format locations called Bennigan’s On The Fly; others include international outposts in Mexico, Qatar, and El Salvador.
Where is Bennigan’s headed next?
Current Bennigan’s CEO Paul Mangiamele was brought in during 2011 to overhaul the chain. In 2015, it was announced that he and his wife, Gwen Mangiamele, had purchased Bennigan’s, along with the Steak and Ale property, housing them under a new company called Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC. The Mangiameles continue to run the restaurant group today.
The Steak and Ale tale is also one of ups and downs. Though all of its locations closed in 2008, Legendary Restaurant Brands has tried a few times to bring the chain back. In 2016, the company announced on its website that it had partnered up with a hospitality group in Mexico, with the possibility of establishing up to 75 Steak and Ale locations in the country. As of 2022, that hasn’t happened, but there’s a section on the Bennigan’s menu called Steak and Ale Classics with three items listed, presumably to keep the brand top of mind.
“Bennigan’s, Bennigan’s On The Fly, and Steak and Ale are roaring back domestically as well as internationally,” Paul Mangiamele told The Takeout. “Steak and Ale is still slated for Cancun. We ran into something called COVID and that put the brakes on our momentum. As we are 100% franchised, we are being very deliberate and, hopefully, intelligent about where we will go with this truly iconic brand.”
While the pandemic might have hampered the expansion of Bennigan’s and its associated restaurants, Mangiamele points out that COVID-related closures demonstrated the public’s desire to return to dining out at sit-down restaurants.
“The pent-up demand for our family brands continues to be very strong,” he said. “After 46 years we are a savvy and experienced team and know exactly how to deal with adversity in all forms.”
As for where Bennigan’s or Steak and Ale might pop up next, the brand appears to be casting a wide net in a strategy Mangiamele refers to as “geographical optimization.” The website lists El Salvador, Guatemala, Pakistan, Honduras, and Nicaragua as upcoming restaurant sites, and Mangiamele adds that the company is “adding Iraq, Turkey, Florida, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania to our growth.” (It’s not too often you see those locations lumped into a list together.)
“Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale were the pioneers of casual dining category, and for almost 50 years we have remained true to our culture and are as relevant now as we are then,” Mangiamele said. “People, passion and culture will beat strategy and tactics every day of the week.”
Bennigan’s still has a place in pop culture
Though Bennigan’s might be a much smaller chain now, it’s still a brand that’s making occasional pop culture appearances, including on the big screen. A new romantic comedy called About Fate, starring Emma Roberts, debuted in September 2022, and it begins in a Bennigan’s. The restaurant is featured during key scenes throughout the film.
FSR Magazine reports that the movie was filmed in a shuttered Bennigan’s location in the Boston area. CEO Paul Mangiamele pulled restaurant pieces out of storage in Dallas for the shoot, and the items were then hauled to Boston for filming. If About Fate’s prominent inclusion of Bennigan’s means anything for the restaurant brand, it’s that the chain hasn’t been forgotten, despite being largely out of sight for nearly 15 years.
“Some brands just want to be all things to all people and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Mangiamele told FSR. “And I think today, you know what, Bennigan’s and other brands are truly in a regenerative moment. You’ve got the young upstarts giving way to the resilience of iconic and legacy brands, brands that have delivered time after time after time.”
In a landscape where people’s dining preferences have changed so much, it might be hard to believe that a dark-wood atmosphere offering deep-fried Monte Cristos could be poised to make a wild comeback. But as we all know, nostalgia is a powerful marketing device. Bennigan’s is betting big on our desire for the comforts of a meal and a place we all remember.