National casual dining chain plans to open 100 restaurants in California starting here

Apr 8, 2015, 2:46pm PDT UPDATED: Apr 8, 2015, 2:52pm PDT

In the world of Bay Area restaurant news, Bennigan’s is not a name that’s heard often, but that could change.

The once-bankrupt casual dining chain is making a comeback, bringing with it 100 new locations throughout California.

The Dallas-based restaurant chain’s expansion into California is starting with the Bay Area. It opened a spot in Santa Clara already, and two more spots in Fremont and San Jose are under way — the first of 100 restaurants that will include both Bennigan’s and its sister brand, Steak and Ale, along with a version called Bennigan’s on the Fly that will show up in airports and other non-traditional eatery spaces.

Paul Mangiamele, chairman and CEO of Bennigan’s parent company Legendary Restaurant Brands, has executed a master development agreement with Narender Taneja, franchise veteran and owner of the Bennigan’s in Santa Clara, to lead the charge in the brand’s California expansion.

While no leases have been signed besides the Fremont and South Bay restaurants, Mangiamele said that a large number of the Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale restaurants in California will land in the Bay Area.

“There is a lot of population there, and people (there) love to eat out, so we see plethora of growth being in Northern California and the Bay Area,” Mangiamele said in an interview with the Business Times. “We also see lots of opportunity for Los Angeles, San Diego, and up through Bakersfield.”

Each restaurant will bring with it 100 to 120 jobs. The total number of jobs for the Bay Area from the eateries could be in the thousands.

It’s an aggressive growth clip for a chain that was facing bankruptcy and a slew of closures not too long ago.

Founded almost 40 years ago by restaurant chain icon Norman Brinker, Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale were pioneers in casual dining. Brinker eventually went on to buy Chili’s and similar brands with his company Brinker International.

The restaurant chain fell into Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in 2008, something that Mangiamele claims was due to “poor custodianship,” and not the Bennigan’s or Steak and Ale brands themselves.

He was brought on by Fortress Investment Group in 2011 to lead the rebirth of the restaurants, after Fortress purchased what was left of the company. Mangiamele said he fell in love with the the brand and earlier this year bought 100 percent of the intellectual property and franchising rights of the chain under his new company, Dallas-based Legendary Restaurant Brands.

Mangiamele and Taneja have reworked the prototype of Bennigan’s to usher it into the modern restaurant age, including bringing the size down from 8,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet. They are seeking spots that are existing or former restaurants to turn into Bennigan’s, “so we can be opportunistic,” Mangiamele said.

It’s a big undertaking, especially after the restaurant’s collapse.

To be successful after a bankruptcy, “you’d need to reinvent yourself,” Darren Tristano of Technomic Inc. research firm told the Dallas Morning News.

But Mangiamele is hopeful for the brand’s future in California.

“This is a roaring come-back,” he said. “Everyone loves to root for the underdog, so we’re the ‘Rocky’ of food service right now.”