FSR MAGAZINE | Callie Evergreen

From returning the iconic Steak and Ale brand to bringing back relevance at Bennigan’s, Paul and Gwen Mangiamele are on a mission to revolutionize casual dining.

What kind of person is gutsy enough to bring back an iconic restaurant chain after it’s been shuttered for nearly two decades? They would have to push past the fear of not living up to the hype or peoples’ expectations, and be 100 percent sure they could deliver a top-notch experience. They would also need the right people and systems in place in order to grow the concept back to its original glory, at a pace that matches the pent-up market demand. They’d need to be someone who didn’t let naysayers slow them down.

Meet Paul Mangiamele, the bold soul who is resurrecting Steak and Ale—the Norman Brinker-founded restaurant that first opened in 1966 and became known for introducing the salad bar. Mangiamele has more than 30 years in the hotel, restaurant, franchising, and retail industries, in both private and public organizations.

Widely considered the early model for casual dining, Steak and Ale was founded on the premise of providing great steaks at affordable pricing and attentive, friendly service in an intimate yet comfortable environment. Inspired by the warmth of an English inn, the concept took off and grew to nearly 300 locations by the 1980s.

But it had an unfortunate ending in 2008 with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that left its sister concept, Bennigan’s, in big trouble, as well. All 150 corporate Bennigan’s closed with the bankruptcy filing, though some franchise locations remained open. Steak and Ale shuttered the remaining 58 at the time of the bankruptcy filing.

A former CEO of Salsarita’s, Mangiamele was originally brought on by Bennigan’s former owner, Atalaya Capital Management, to lead the chain’s turnaround. But in February 2015, along with his wife, Gwen, Mangiamele completed a 100 percent acquisition of Bennigan’s Franchising Company and Steak and Ale from Fortress Investment Group.

“I saw this: The brands are diamonds,” Mangiamele says. “They were diamonds, [they] just had to be polished up, had to be loved, had to be nurtured, [and they] had to reward people for hard work. We had to replace the culture that was part of the original piece that Norman Brinker built way back with the S&A core. So that was key. But the other key to it was to put your own money up.”

The Mangiameles formed Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC, with a mission to revolutionize casual dining by reintroducing beloved, legacy restaurant brands that people are nostalgic for, but give those concepts an upscale makeover and grow at a sustainable pace.

“My wife and I, we put our life savings on the line,” he notes. “I was brought up a poor kid from New York City. Every dollar I ever earned I worked my butt off for. Same with my wife. There’s no golden spoon, there’s no graduating from Yale and Princeton and Brown and having a father or family that has a random business that I inherited and then ruined it. No, it wasn’t that situation at all.”

The power couple has been hard at work bringing back relevancy, sales, and locations to Bennigan’s, the Irish pub-themed American restaurant founded in 1976 in Atlanta. Bennigan’s became known for its friendly atmosphere and craveable American fare, from Prime half-pound burgers and sandwiches—including the World-Famous Monte Cristo—to favorites like Oh, Baby Back Ribs.

The retro vibe of Steak & Ale was nothing short of legendary.

Steak and Ale’s Legacy

  • 1966 – Steak and Ale is founded by Norman Brinker in Dallas
  • 1980s – The chain has grown to 280 locations across the country
  • 2008 – All remaining locations closed as part of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding
  • 2013 – A Facebook group is created titled “Steak and Ale’s Comeback,” which has grown to nearly 55,000 followers
  • 2015 – Paul and Gwen Mangiamele buy Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s from Fortress Investment Group
  • -The Mangiameles form Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC
  • 2018 – LRB adds a few Steak and Ale signature favorites to the Bennigan’s menu
  • 2023 – A 15-unit area development agreement is sold to franchise partner Roy Arnold
  • 2024 – The first new location is set to open in Burnsville, Minnesota

Now operating out of Dallas, the chain came out on the other side of ownership changes and restructuring and is already reaching new heights. One recent example: the 2022 romantic comedy “About Fate”—starring Emma Roberts,  Lewis Tan, Madelaine Petsch, and Thomas Mann—kicks off with a scene at Bennigan’s, and several more key scenes are set inside the restaurant.

Producers of the movie who were familiar with Bennigan’s reached out to Mangiamele beforehand, looking for a family friendly setting. He pulled various Bennigan’s pieces out of storage, and his team packed a truck with menus, T-shirts, and a neon green logo and road tripped to Boston, where they shot the movie in a previously shuttered venue. The Mangiameles were even extras in the movie, sitting in a booth behind Tan and Roberts during one scene. “When I saw how many times Bennigan’s was mentioned and how so many scenes were shot in the Bennigan’s, it’s was like, holy mackerel, this is like a billion-dollar commercial,” Mangiamele previously told FSR.

Bennigan’s currently has 10 locations open in the U.S. in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas, including three “On the Fly” units (the brand’s fast-casual iteration), plus 15 international restaurants. Bennigan’s On The Fly creates more diverse franchising opportunities and attracts a new demographic; while the typical full-service Bennigan’s sites are free-standing, 5,200-square-foot restaurants with full bars and patios, the quick-serve model is flexible and can fit in nontraditional venues like airports, arenas, hotels, food halls and more. Mangiamele previously told QSR more than a dozen were in the development pipelines with more room for growth, from ghost kitchens to international markets such as the Middle East and Central America.

“Everything has its cycle. And I think we are timely in the reintroduction or resurrection and the renaissance of Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale, and then Bennigan’s On the Fly,” Mangiamele adds.

One chance to get it right

So one might ask, why exactly is now the right time for Steak and Ale’s comeback?

For one, instead of trying to define a niche, Mangiamele says he’s capitalizing on the pent-up demand of legacy brands that already have awareness, with the ultimate goal of achieving global market share capture.

Another reason is more personal. “It’s truly a labor of love. I grew up with these brands myself,” Mangiamele says of the 58-year-old Steak and Ale and 48-year-old Bennigan’s. “And they develop very strong emotional connections, and emotional connections in the business world equals revenue, and revenue and the ability to create high-revenue restaurants, in a day where there’s a lot of failure and not a lot of successes, speaks volumes for the emotional connections that were created so many years ago.”

Mangiamele knew if he was going to bring Steak and Ale back, he had to do it right.

The power of that nostalgia is perfectly exemplified by the Facebook group called “Steak and Ale’s Comeback,” which was created in 2013 and has grown to nearly 55,000 followers. That group has become a kind of playbook for Mangiamele, with wish-list cities and former employees reminiscing about how great it was to work for the company.

On April 23, Mangiamele posted an update in the group that his team is accepting domestic and international applications for people or groups interested in owning a franchise. “After years of fits and starts, after battling COVID, naysayers, rising interest rates, inflationary pressures, supply chain disruptions and a host of other headwinds, we are now heads down, swinging away and under construction on bringing back everyone’s favorite iconic brand: Steak and Ale!”

“The responses to our updates are heart warming and reassuring to read,” the post continues. “It’s an interesting dynamic as when most brands open they try in earnest to CREATE market share, in our case, we already have amazing awareness, BUILT IN MARKET SHARE CAPTURE and PENT up demand. An envious position to be sure and one, (of course, coupled with legendary execution), that will overcome the obstacles that most franchisors contend with every day.”

To kick things off, Legendary Restaurant Brands struck an area development agreement early last year with Kansas-based Endeavor Properties that plans to bring 15 new locations to several markets across the U.S. Endeavor holds exclusive rights for expansion in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

The debut of the first new Steak and Ale location to open since 2008 will be in Burnsville, Minnesota, which as of press time was still in construction and slated to open in summer of 2024.

The new Steak and Ale will be housed in a 6,000-square-foot space with the ability to accommodate 220-225 guests, featuring a patio with hotel access as well as its own outside entrance. The restaurant will also handle food and beverage operations for the hotel—including room service, breakfast, lunch and dinner, late night, and delivery. It will even serve as a host kitchen for Bennigan’s. Day-to-day operations will be handled by franchisee Roy Arnold, CEO of Endeavor Properties.

As someone who coincidentally was born in Burnsville and raised in the Twin Cities, I had to ask Mangiamele why he chose this seemingly random city to reopen the first Steak and Ale after two decades. In addition to the property being a good fit to renovate in a prime spot by a Wyndam hotel, it just so happens that Mangiamele and his wife have a residence in nearby Eden Prairie. “My kids grew up in Minnesota. I know the state, I know the market, I know the demographics,” he says. “So when this came up, I said, ‘Man, you know what, we are in the middle of the sweet spot for Midwest, family friendly, high-value proposition, reintroduction of Steak and Ale.’ So that’s how the genesis of being in Burnsville became a reality.”

The projected opening estimate has been pushed back a few times, but Mangiamele won’t let it be rushed. “I’m also not slow walking it, either. Nobody wants the doors to open faster than I do. But it has to be right,” he says. “You can’t get this wrong. You have one chance to reintroduce and resurrect and enjoy the renaissance of Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale. And I feel like I owe it to those guests that have been tenacious and waiting for this to happen to get it right.”

No corners will be cut on food or execution.
New and improved

In terms of the development process, Mangiamele and the team at LRB brands had to basically recreate the brand, then refine and improve upon every aspect—from food recipes and beverage menus to the tech, furniture, fixtures, kitchen equipment, and everything in between.

Some elements will be kept the same: The new location will feature booths separated from one side to the other with stained glass, like the originals. But the layout will be light and airy, closer to 6,000 square feet than the old 10,000 boxes, and anchored by tech that makes the back-end work.

The demand for elevated, experiential dining among today’s customers isn’t going away anytime soon, which is an area where LRB will constantly be innovating and bringing new ideas to the table. “That’s where I think a lot of the brands out there missed the mark. They’re very transactional, not experiential,” he says. “I think if you fail on the experiential, where you don’t really deliver a value for the experience—whether it’s the music, it’s the food, it’s the service, and you fail on any one of the dozens of touch points, especially in a higher-end, casual-dining environment—you’ll just have guest defection.”

“The resurrection of Steak and Ale is propitious because of the defection that has occurred in many of the other casual-dining brands, and we’ll pick them up,” Mangiamele adds. “So not only will we have all those other components in place, but we’ll pick up market share of lapsed consumers to other brands. It’s a very enviable position now.”

The new S&A menu will feature classic favorites including the giant salad bar, the Hawaiian Chicken dinner, and Kensington Club Steak, along with several contemporary touches like a Prime Rib carving station with dramatic cast iron doors. An array of beer, wine and cocktails, tableside salad service, and Irish Coffee will also be offered—including a few crossover menu items and services from Bennigan’s.

“It will not be your downmarket offerings, but your upmarket offerings on the salad bar. We’re a scratch kitchen. Everything is hand-crafted, even from the beverage side. We’re going back to the speakeasy drinks, the traditional drinks,” he says. “We’re introducing old-school back into the lexicon of our industry. Retro, ‘new-stalgia’ versus nostalgia.”

Mangiamele expects to do “ridiculously high volumes” when the first restaurant opens, and not just because members of that 55,000 Facebook group will travel from all over the country to visit. The restaurant will span all dayparts, from breakfast, lunch, and dinner to late-night, catering, room service, and banquet for the hotel, plus delivery.

“You just don’t quite know why you love this place, but you’re going to love it. And what does that equal? Frequency,” he adds. “And these are the things that everybody is trying to create in their brands. Some are guessing right, some are missing the boat entirely. But it all starts with the experiential.”

Steak and Ale could expand further, but it has to start with store No. 1.
Long-term growth, not short-term profits

Mangiamele has seen it more times than he can count—a restaurant brand touting a ridiculous number, like opening 100 restaurants in two years, which never actually happens. “It’s folly to say that, because the environment for that kind of growth doesn’t exist,” he says. “However, the demand for our products, our brands, does exist. I already know where to go, because we had hundreds of restaurants before. We already know the markets that were the best markets, whether it’s domestically or internationally.”

Because of that, Mangiamele has no desire to put a firm number out there of the locations he’d like to have open someday. “I think there’s no reason to quantify that, as much as we have that demand. Now we have to meet that demand by scaling in the particular states and markets that were conducive to do business, where the unit economics of our franchise model makes sense,” he says.

The plan is to be deliberate and intelligent about where, how, and when they open new locations and expand to new markets in the U.S., though Mangiamele admits they’re already having conversations about international expansion. “I’ve asked everybody to be very patient. I know everybody is chomping at the bit, but they’ve got to realize that nobody wants it faster than I do,” he adds.

“If you’re going to paint on this beautiful palette of what Steak and Ale was and what it continues to grow into, you have to appreciate the deliberateness and the painstaking attention to detail that we’re taking to not just replicate it, but improve on what was created so many years ago.”

A mantra Mangiamele stands by is ABCD—going “above and beyond the call of duty” when it comes to hospitality and pleasing guests. “If you go out to eat today, you’re spending hard earned money. And now, a lot more because of all the other headwinds that we’ve had to deal with, whether it’s supply chain issues, or it’s inflationary issues, or interest rate issues. I mean, you name it,” he explains.

The Mangiameles are working hands-on when it comes to training staff for this very reason. “Because again, I want to introduce something extraordinary. That again, delivers not only that value proposition, but something that goes ABCD, and speaks to our culture that I inherited from Norman Brinker, who was a friend of mine,” Mangiamele says. “And I think he’d be proud to look down and say, ‘thatta boy, go get them.’ The only two brands he ever created were the ones I own now with my wife, and I think that’s cool.”

He adds, “But it’s also a legacy, because I never lost sight of the fact that I’m standing on the shoulders of those that came before us.”

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