Meredith Carroll: Meredith Pro Tem
August 8, 2008
The parent company of the Bennigan’s restaurant chain filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy late last month, with all company-owned franchises ceasing operations immediately.
The news came as a great disappointment to frequenters of the 32-year-old tavern-themed eatery that featured such clever Irish fare as Guinness® Glazed Popcorn Shrimp and Turkey O’Toole (a unique pretzel roll smothered with thinly sliced, tender turkey breast, melted Swiss cheese and smoky honey Dijon. Served hot.). Still, devotees were given a flicker of hope this week when it was revealed that a financial restructuring firm is working to open the chain for business again in the wake of the filing.
Some mid-range casual dining insiders are wary of the move, though, suggesting that Bennigan’s is in need of more than just a cash infusion to stay competitive in the current market of jalapeno-popper heavyweights like T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s.
First and foremost, it is being advised that Bennigan’s needs to seriously reconsider how to rebuild its brand loyalty. Which is why 33-year-old Tremayne Durham has been asked to join a focus group that’s been organized in order to help align Bennigan’s priorities more closely with customer desires. Logistics have yet to be hammered out, however, as to how he’ll be able to participate from behind bars. Last month in Oregon, Durham agreed to plead guilty to fatally shooting a man in a dispute over an ice-cream truck only on the condition that he could get a break from jail food and be served a meal of KFC and Popeye’s chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and carrot cake.
Restaurant industry experts and district attorneys everywhere agreed that Durham’s allegiance to KFC and Popeye’s was enviable. After all, it’s not every day that a man waives his right to a trial and accepts 30 years to life in exchange for a bucket of Extra Crispy. Family of Colonel Sanders said the outcome would have made the late fried-chicken entrepreneur proud.
Bennigan’s will also have to reexamine its decor if it wants to play with the big boys, like Chili’s and Olive Garden, according to one restaurant design professional ” who spoke on the condition of anonymity since if the chain doesn’t reopen, his firm is planning on dumpster diving for some Bennigan’s paraphernalia to use in a “How Not to Decorate Your Restaurant” seminar being offered next spring through the Learning Annex.
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Bennigan’s interior designers are rumored to have recently studied a McDonald’s in Hacienda Heights, Calif., for inspiration. The Golden Arches giant in that neighborhood made news this winter when it was redecorated using the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of arranging furniture to promote health, harmony, prosperity and, now, Extra Value Meals.
Customers in the Hacienda Heights McDonald’s have reportedly responded positively to the changes, even though most don’t realize they’ve been feng shui-ed. Similarly, Bennigan’s customers have relayed for years that they, too, don’t realize much of anything after a few rounds of the restaurant’s famous Paddy-O Punch. And while Bennigan’s probably won’t feng shui its restaurants per se, since earth tones, waterfalls and bamboo might clash with its casual bar-and-grill ambience, which more closely resembles a frat house than a tea house, it is considering adding some plants that aren’t plastic to the areas immediately surrounding its hostess stands.
Finally, health professionals concur that Bennigan’s will have to become more heart-friendly if it wants to attract more families. While it didn’t receive a bad report in a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that examined the average caloric intake per meal at leading restaurant chains, that’s only because it wasn’t actually included in the study.
Yet Bennigan’s is determined to find its own Jared, the guy who famously lost 240 pounds on a diet of Subway sandwiches. Or Chris Coleson, a Richmond, Va., businessman who lost 86 pounds in six months eating only McDonald’s wraps, apple-walnut salads and the occasional cheeseburger.
It just has to decide how it can spin the weight-loss benefits of menu mainstays like Broccoli Bites (broccoli mixed with bacon, onions and cheese, rolled in bread crumbs, lightly fried and served with smoky honey Dijon) and Bananas Foster Xango (original and banana cheesecake served in a pastry with classic bananas foster sauce, vanilla ice cream, sliced bananas and caramel).
A timeline has not been announced for the shuttered Bennigan’s to reopen, but if it happens, it is believed that it will be soon.