Bennigan's, the chain of restaurants that along with T.G.I. Friday's led the "neighborhood bar" revolution of the 70's and 80's, closed their nearly 150 company owned stores this week as they filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Another 140 franchisee owned locations will stay open, but for how long nobody is sure.
Bennigan's parent company, Multimedia Restaurant Group, also owns the Steak and Ale chain of restaurants. Steak and Ale also closed all remaining company owned stores this week, as well.
This could be the first of what many analysts see as a wringing out of the theme restaurants that were so popular for a number of years. Two other chain's - Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday - are reportedly in financial trouble and their stock is trading at all-time low prices. Earlier this year, the parent company that owns the Baker's Square and Village Inn restaurants filed for bankruptcy and shuttered some of their stores.
It's a tough time for restaurants these days. People aren't dining out as much as they have in the past due to belt-tightening with high gas prices and soaring food prices. And rising food prices are putting a major dent in the profit margins of many restaurants.
Bennigan's and T.G.I. Friday's helped fuel the emergence of "theme" restaurants that popped up in their wake. Usually situated near shopping malls, Bennigan's decor was a cross between classy and cheesy. Set up to look like a fine Irish bar, the dark wood paneling and brass furnishings gave the place an upscale look. But the over-friendly and often insincere wait staff, the boring food and the stupid birthday celebration songs gave Bennigan's a goofy image, as well.
Bennigan's was famous for their Monte Cristo sandwich, which is basically a ham, turkey and swiss cheese sandwich served on egg-battered bread and grilled. Their potato skins were a big item, as well. But the rest of Bennigan's menu was the usual over-priced pub-style grub with some main entrees mixed in for good measure.
Years ago, I had a boss that I worked for who just loved to go into Chicago and go to the Bennigan's on Michigan Ave. (which happened to be the largest grossing Bennigan's in the whole chain). Now, I don't want to say this man had simple tastes, but there are hundreds of so much better restaurants within the downtown Chicago area. However, he was sucked into the Bennigan's "casual elegance" theme like many were in the 80's, even though he could have walked two blocks in any direction and found better food in just as nice an atmosphere as Bennigan's.
The biggest problem Bennigan's faced was that they didn't change with the times. They kept a lot of the same menu items for years and years, they didn't update their image or theme, and they plodded along hoping to keep the baby-boomers who fueled their growth in the 70's and 80's coming back through the doors. In the end, it proved to be a disastrous combination of corporate planning.
We have a Bennigan's not far from our house. It's a franchise-owned store, owned by Kinseth Hospitality, which owns hotels and restaurants throughout the Midwest. There are no plans by Kinseth to shut down their seven Bennigan's restaurants in Iowa and Illinois, but they do admit the Bennigan's corporate demise has caused them to go into a damage control mode with the public.
We've been to the Bennigan's near our house once. For those of you who are regular readers of Roadtips, you know that I am averse to national chains and prefer to eat at local establishments. We tried it, the food was good, not outstanding. The food wasn't exciting, nor was it memorable. It's just the same old "cookie-cutter" food you find at a number of similar theme restaurants across the nation.
Now, we have friends who swear by the food at Applebee's, Chili's, Texas Roadhouse, and T.G.I. Friday's. (As an aside - I have to admit that I have a certain affinity to Friday's Hot Sicilian sandwiches - an item not on the menu, but is still in the corporate cookbook. Some Friday's restaurants will make them for you if you ask, others will say, "Sorry, we only do what's on the menu.") While I mentally turn up my nose at the suggestion by friends the food is great at these places, I know exactly why they like to go into those places time and time again.
The atmosphere at the restaurants is hip, festive and somewhat of a sensory overload. The wait staffs are attentive, overly-friendly and usually good looking. The beer is cold and the game is on the TV. And the menu is like a security blanket - they like the same things over and over again. That's the kind of person these theme restaurants are looking for - the ones who are comfortable in the place and who aren't usually willing to try anything new.
Well, that's not me. Give me a great little out-of-the-way place the locals go to and I'll put up the food in that place against any of the national chains at any point in time. It's sort of my goal in life to teach those who frequent the national chains that there is a lot better food, sometimes at cheaper prices, with just as good of a homey atmosphere as the cookie cutter restaurants found in any big city across America.
While it's not a good time for restaurants like Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday, Chicago Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno pointed out on a recent interview on WBBM radio in Chicago that a lot of the independent, upscale restaurants in the Chicago area are flourishing. A number of new restaurants have opened and Bruno said that a number of new upscale restaurants are slated to open by early 2009 in the downtown area.
It's like what Cindy and I say when we go to Chicago - why eat at a place like Bennigan's when we don't even eat at the Bennigan's at home? I'll only eat at a national chain when it's late at night and I don't have time to find a good local place, or if it's convenient for a business meeting meal. But other than that, show me the way to the locally owned places.
Along with the announcement of store closures by Starbucks earlier this month, we could be seeing a trend among American consumers that they've somehow wizened-up to the fact that they've been taken by the huge corporate mentality of paying for mediocre products at premium prices. We have a place here in Davenport, Red Band Coffee, that Cindy just swears by. It's a premium coffee, but it's half the price of a Starbucks. I don't drink coffee, but this stuff smells so good that I'd probably start drinking it just because of the smell.
And that's what American consumers may be finding out in these tough economic times. They've smelled the food and the coffee on the other side of the fence and it ain't Bennigan's or Starbucks.