Paul Mangiamele, CEO of Bennigan’s Franchising Company

Paul MangiameleCaution: CEO Paul Mangiamele’s enthusiasm for Bennigan’s is so strong, it’s infectious. By the time you get to this end of this article, you may be “bleeding green” too.

Mangiamele joined Bennigan’s Franchising Company in May 2011. The casual-dining company currently has 47 international stores and 35 domestic stores, including two corporate stores. Mangiamele also presides over the rights for the brand Steak and Ale.

What are you excited about now with Bennigan’s?

I’m excited about many things on many fronts. One, I don’t think it’s any secret that Bennigan’s went through a very, very bad time over five years ago now, through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is as bad as it gets, with any company. When you have to resort to a Chapter 7 complete liquidation, in other words, you really don’t exist anymore.

I was told so many times by so many people that no company can come back from a Chapter 7, and of course, the way that I’m built, the more naysayers that are out there, the more determined and focused I get in making sure they get proven wrong, and this was no difference.

What do you think went wrong with Bennigan’s?

So with a legacy brand that was founded by Norm Brinker in 1976, with the rich history from food to service to atmosphere to look to feel, to being hip and high energy, with going through the different transitions, it became a victim of brand drift.

Brand drift is when you lose your mojo, the very successful components that made you a very successful organization, you move away from: the strong training, the strong adherence and compliance to high operating standards, the great food innovation, drink innovation, isn’t paid attention to. As you get further away from that, your brand not only drifts away, but you lose customers, and they go find different places to eat.

How do you chart a turnaround in this situation?

There are so many chains out there exactly in that situation. As I did the analysis with my team and with my franchisees, and with my vendors, and making sure the combination is a collective one, we came up with the strategy to extract ourselves from the drift and start charting a course to leadership and preeminence for Bennigan’s and the reemergence of Steak and Ale, which we have the trademark and intellectual property for, but as we speak today, there are zero Steak and Ales in existence.

That comprehensive strategy is a 360 degree review in every single discipline. Every single function and discipline is not just reviewed, but you take a very deep dive into it, and out of that comes a strategy, which we have deployed now, and the result has been same store sales increases, a new food menu, a new bar menu, a new training program, a new franchise profile, so that when these collective components are put to bear, we have become a very strong organization again.

The people that are a part of it are so passionate, that we say we bleed green, the Irish green. Not only do we bleed Irish green, but the other aspect is that our mentality and our focus is 25/8. Because in today’s tough business and economic conditions, you have to do more than everybody else to not only reemerge but to take the leadership role, and for our case it’s casual dining, so 25/8 is our focus, and a return to relevance is our focus, and everyone on our team including the vendors that service our account to the franchisees and to my corporate support team is second to none in any organization. We do more than bleed green, we ooze green.

That, part and parcel, is a very brief overview as to why we opened five restaurants in the last 60 days, why we have same store sales increases, why we have reductions in food and labor costs and increases in average check. These are just part and parcel of this comprehensive and all encompassing strategy that any company should actually employ to not only keep itself relevant but to take a leadership role.

Is this the first turnaround project you’ve had in your career?

That would be a negative. I’ve been part of many, and the first time I affected a turnaround is when I became a franchisee myself [for Pizzeria Uno], which is a touchstone that I have for knowing and having an empathy for what my franchisees want and need for having a good and caring franchisor. When you think about it, they are paying you money. They are investing money for you to grow your brand. It just incenses me when I see franchisors that pay absolutely no respect or homage to the very people who helped that brand become successful.

What’s the same or different with the 2013 Bennigan’s?

What we are doing is reattaching the emotional connection for our guests to Bennigan’s by reintroducing the same focus and commitment to food and service and an atmosphere and an ambiance that a wide spectrum of demographic can experience, and I would like to think, if I can be so bold, that Norm would be amazingly proud of our new prototype, of our new look, feel, and the vibe that we create.

Our commitment to food is really a chef-driven menu, coupled with an innovative and eclectic drink menu, and of course we always have crafted beer and IPAs, and we refreshed that line as well. So when you come in, we have a new look, we have a new menu, and I completely committed to a very thorough training and validation process, for our servers, bartenders, cooks, managers, and franchisees, so that we are known for not just delivering an experience, but a legendary experience. I’m so proud of being the CEO of this brand.

I can tell. I’m so excited for you. You really seem like you were meant to do this.

I’ve worked for 35 years in this business to position myself to do exactly what we’re doing. It’s driven by me, but I’ve got a great team of people. I’ve got a great team of franchisees and vendors, and again we are collectively imposing our will on this brand to make it fresh and new and innovative again. So it’s almost like that back to the future thing. Here we are in some cases, with folks your age, you remember it vaguely through some type of gauze, and I am introducing Bennigan’s to people for the first time, the Millennial generation, and they are coming in and going, so this is what mom and dad talked about.

The other thing that gives me a huge lift is that I do so many customer intercepts and Facebook intercepts where you mention Bennigan’s, and everybody has a great story. No one has ever said, I never had a good experience, the food was always terrible.

What’s on tap for Steak and Ale?

What’s on tap is this: the same methodology we deployed for Bennigan’s, we are deploying now for Steak and Ale. It’s another brand that people remember with funness and good feelings, known for its affordability for a good steak dinner without having to go to one of the high-end steak places, I don’t want to name any, where you can’t get out with less than $100 per person, and when you go with four people that becomes a very expensive ticket.

What I want to do again is introduce the mid-priced steak, still very high-quality, prepared in different juices, and spices and herbs that will give it a flavor profile that’s eclectic, and then I will replace the salad bar. The salad bar, 46 years later, has been overdone, so I am designing a salad cart, very high end looking and feeling that we will take tableside and actually do table side salad preparation with very different and eclectic toppings that we prepare for you. I haven’t seen it being done a long time, and I think this will be a nice point of differentiation for Steak and Ale. And since it will be a franchise model, I’m also looking at what’s the cost of construction, so that it will be compelling unit economics, like what I’ve done with Bennigan’s.

I’m working with a chef, so some of my crazy ideas can come back down to earth to see if in fact they are workable and things can be sourced and we can get distribution and purchasing in place so we can provide the product not only for domestic, but since we are in 15 countries with Bennigan’s, I want to replicate the Steak and Ale in those same countries and in some cases with the same franchisees because I already know that they are proven operators and people I trust with the brand.

What gives you your spark?

I get completely and absolutely excited about seeing this brand come back to life, seeing the spark in everyone’s eyes again. Seeing the franchisees galvanize and moving together as a team, seeing that the validation in the field is so positive, seeing our same store sales start to grow, and the big embrace that we’ve received globally about seeing this brand come back to life. And of course, if you have a bleeding green dream team, if that doesn’t excite you, you shouldn’t be in the business.

It sounds amazing. It sounds like you might be doing this for a while.

Let me take your question, why am I doing it? We are not on this Earth forever. We have a short window of time to make our mark, and for me, I’ve worked all my life to position myself to bring, together with my team, to bring this brand and Steak and Ale back to relevance, but beyond that it’s about developing people and making our guests happy, and leaving a legacy for the next generation.
What I want to do is help the next generation of entrepreneurs, the next generation of franchisees, the next generation of restaurant managers, and supervisors and vice presidents to do my part in making some contribution to this beautiful industry that has developed so many great people.

What do you look for when you are recruiting key people for your team?

Depending on the position, you’ve got to look for the bandwidth, that they have the experience and the know-how of the discipline, but more importantly and critically in any selection is an attitude, you look for an attitude. You cannot train attitude. You cannot make people passionate about the brand. If there’s a negative attitude or an absence of any attitude, and if there’s an absence of team work where they are just the lone wolf and that’s all they want to be, there’s not a seat for them at the table.

This is a team effort, all of us. I have a certain role, but I am still at the same table with the rest of my team, and again, all of us will always be smarter than one of us. I’m looking for that contributor who is not afraid to put in the time, that can have that 25/8 work ethic, that can get us to not only reach our objectives but to exceed them.

I really look for a business athlete. I look for somebody who has that work ethic and dedication who is able to make sacrifices to make that contribution to the team objective or to the strategic and tactical plan that we’ve put together. I find that people in athletics are the ones that have gone through the sacrifices and commitment of staying late and being in the stadium until it’s dark and doing whatever it took to be proficient in their sport and that’s a great carryover into the world of business.

I’ve heard about how you are into fitness and you were an Olympic boxer? What’s an interesting little-known fact about you?

Coming up on the athletic side, I ran track and field, and I did do boxing. I did try out for the 1972 Olympics, and I trained with a fabulous man that actually changed my life.

I was trained by a phenomenal trainer of champions. His name was Cus D’Amoto. He’s no longer with us. He turned me from a belligerent teenage punk into a man, and because of his contacts throughout boxing, he trained Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres. Because of his connections in boxing, I was lucky enough to train during the trials with Muhammad Ali. I’m just a dopey teenager; I think I was only 19 at the time, and here I am with Muhammad Ali and Cus D’Amoto, and some of the people who have become legends today, and I had no idea how damn lucky I was to be in the presence of such greatness.

How did that change your life, being around these champions?

It wasn’t so much the boxing. It was a defining moment in my life that took me from the boy to the man, and that transition happened mostly because of learning the beauty of discipline, how to train your mind because the mind is a muscle he would always tell me, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets, he would always tell me, and how you could have a singular focus and intensity to make through the imposing of your will to make things happen, and having things happen.

Like I was a Middleweight, and you would have to make weight, so you gotta get up and do road work at 5 am. You see a piece of cake, and you can’t have it, because you gotta make weight. The things you really want to do, you don’t do, and the things you don’t want to do, you make yourself do. That, in essence, is the secret of discipline that you see so sorely lacking in our society today.

It was a spectacular, special time, to be able to rub elbows with Muhammad Ali. Not only was he a great boxing champion, he was a great man. I was just a dopey kid fighting with amateurs, and he treated me with respect. He had a place at the table. He was such a down to earth guy.

Rebecca Patt specializes in executive recruiting for the restaurant industry. Need to recruit some championship talent for your team? Contact her at

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