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Bennigan's, Other QSR Brands Tough It Out in Tough Times

Posted by Dale Buss on September 2, 2011 03:33 PM

Double dip or a single dip with sprinkles on it, the recessionary feeling of the economy is something that Americans may be getting used to. And increasingly, quick-serve and fast-casual restaurant brands are adjusting to this "new normal" and simply trying to do business in spite of it, instead of assuming that better days are ahead.

Take Bennigan's. One of the original definers of the modern fast-casual restaurant segment, the 80-unit chain knows a thing or two about hard times, and by its own admission the Irish pub chain had grown rather stale and lifeless. It filed for bankruptcy-court protection in 2008, closed its corporate-owned stores across the US, and last November relaunched under new ownership. And certainly the three-year slump in the restaurant industry hasn't helped.

But instead of crying the blues, the Dallas-based chain, which now operates about 100 stores in the US and internationally is bringing out the green: It is launching a deep overhaul that includes re-connecting with the Irish green that was a key part of the optics of the original Bennigan's brand.

"We're not going to let our brand get stale," Bennigan's new CEO Paul Mangiamele told Nation's Restaurant News. "We want to re-engineer and reintroduce this new mentality into the marketplace. We even brought back green. We were emoving away from Irish green as a brand, and now we bleed it."

But it's not all wishing on the luck of the Irish brand. At its corporate flagship in Chicago, Bennigan's has optimized its menu, retrained all servers and back-of-house staff, set higher internal standards for operations, and launched a local-store marketing push. Mangiamele said that, while competitors may be cowering in the face of recession, "we've spent into it." Initial results at its two corporate stores are encouraging, but it isn't clear how quickly Bennigan's plans to work with franchisees to implement the branding changes.

Meanwhile, other restaurant brands are as determined not to let their industry's persistently downbeat outlook defeat them. Subway introduced the $5 foot-long-sandwich value play before the Great Recession and now is a long-term part of its menu. Chipotle, Domino's and other QSR chains also have benefited from the "trade-down" effect wrought on restaurant customers by the sluggish economy. And having learned to do more with less, many brands insist they can do it for a while longer if they have to.

"If we have another dip, we think we're poised to to very well during the next recession," Mike Lassiter, CEO of Rising Roll Gourmet, a 14-unit concept headquartered in Atlanta, told QSR Magazine.

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