ONE OF THE MOST LEGENDARY RESTAURANTS IN AMERICA IS PLANNING TO RETURN IN APRIL.
Paul Mangiamele has always understood the gravity of the task ahead. Often, when a restaurant enters a new market, it circles a 15–20-mile radius and asks whether this is a site people will drive to, or if it needs to rely on foot traffic. This opening, though, at least at first, will be more like a 15–20 state pull. And that might be underselling it, as north of 50,000 people have continually suggested to Mangiamele for some time in a Facebook group dedicated to its comeback.
In April 2024, Mangiamele and partner Roy Arnold will officially resurrect one of the most iconic restaurant chains in American dining history. Steak & Ale, founded in 1966 by the late Norman Brinker—one of only two brands he created, along with Bennigan’s—left the map with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008. The brand some credit for inventing the salad bar had grown as large as 280 units in the 1980s. The remaining 58 shuttered with the filing, as did 150 corporate Bennigan’s. Seven years later, Mangiamele and his wife, Gwen, acquired the assets from Fortress Investment Group and formed Legendary Restaurant Brands.
The Mangiameles first got Bennigan’s going (there are 24 today) but hardly forgot about Steak & Ale. Rather, Mangiamele knew you couldn’t rush a revival of this scale. “We can’t get it wrong,” Mangiamele says. “We can’t hit a single or a double, we’ve got to hit a grand slam. And that’s been the motivation.”
While Mangiamele shared earlier in the year Steak & Ale was bracing to reenter the casual landscape, he’s now ready to unveil where and when: The chain will spring back in a Wyndham hotel on Nicollet Avenue in Burnsville, Minnesota. The space is converting from a Best Western and will be operated by franchisee Arnold, who is the CEO of Kansas-based Endeavor Properties.
It’s going to be a 6,000-square-foot space with a patio that has access from the hotel as well as an outside entrance. The first Steak & Ale in 15 years will sit roughly 220–225 customers and fulfill the F&B operations of the hotel, from room service to breakfast to delivery to late night to serving as a host kitchen for Bennigan’s as well.
As mentioned, Mangiamele was presented with an open, and constant, roadmap of feedback throughout the process. The Facebook page, “Steak and Ale’s Comeback” was created in August of 2013. Mangiamele said he was curious at the time if the Steak & Ale faithful were a “cult of five or six or seven people.” Today, there’s 52,000-plus patrons in there and nearly 2,500 reviews at a rating of 4.6 despite the fact everybody has to dine on memories. “There’s over 50,000 people rooting for this brand Steak & Ale that, really, up until now, had existed in their hearts and their souls and their minds. So that’s very reassuring and validating for me,” Mangiamele says.
The majority of posts are either recollections or requests to bring Steak & Ale to one market or another. Scattered throughout, however, are also nuggets on what menu items need to stay and how the brand should look—all measures of Steak & Ale Mangiamele considered at length over the years.
The Tudor-style décor and vibe, so vital to the brand’s DNA, will be clear. The salad bar is coming back. The original logo is 100 percent replicated, Mangiamele says, and he took it a step further by commissioning floor tile that says “Steak & Ale established 1966” for guests to walk over as they enter the space. “I’m telling you, the people who love Steak & Ale, or the people who have never been to Steak & Ale, will be wowed by the atmosphere, the music, the vibe, the fun, the energy,” he says, adding many of these experience-forward qualities are “sorely lacking” in today’s casual-dining arena. In addition to the salad bar, Steak & Ale will offer tableside salad service and Irish Coffee. Simply, it won’t lack for flair.
The menu will showcase a host of Steak & Ale classics, like the Kensington Club, Hawaiian Chicken, Steak Oscar, and baby back ribs. And there will be blackboard specials where Steak & Ale reintroduces items to gauge how consumer palates have changed over the decades. So expect tried-and-true recipes, made from scratch, at an affordable price point (another staple of the original concept), alongside a rotation of classics reimagined.
On the beverage side, leaning into what Mangiamele likes to refer to as “new-stalgia,” will be a lineup of cocktail stalwarts, like martinis and old fashioneds—recipe and ingredient forward over novelty. Beer (ale) and medium to higher-priced wines will round things out.
The notion of Steak & Ale reemerging in a hotel is a sight customers will likely see again. Arnold inked a 15-store deal in the Midwest and holds exclusive rights for expansion in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.
Mangiamele views the relationship as “symbiotic,” and one that rethinks the oft-tired partnership between hotels and their F&B arms, where the latter can become just an amenity for hotel guests. “And if it broke even,” Mangiamele says, “they were ecstatic … but imagine if [hoteliers] really thought out the branding of the F&B piece.” He expects Steak & Ale to become part of the hotel operation capable of driving occupancy and revPAR (revenue per available room). Mangiamele says many organizations he spoke to didn’t see the vision, or in the least, viewed it as a one-off instead of a strategy. Arnold got it. “I had to find a franchisee who would share that passion and that desire to reintroduce something that is near and dear to so many thousands of people. Can’t get it wrong,” Mangiamele reiterates.
And it’s going to crack wide future whitespace for Steak & Ale as well as Bennigan’s, or the fast casual offshoot Bennigan’s on the Fly. That’s why Mangiamele adopted franchising as the company’s methodology to propel development. “It’s all about market share,” Mangiamele says. “And the capture of that market share is what makes the franchising piece to this very strong.”
But going back to the broader aim, Mangiamele feels the restaurant industry sits at a regenerative inflection in COVID’s wake. You can apply the same logic to the inflationary puzzle operators and consumers find themselves weaving through today. From one angle, there are hotel spaces and F&B attachments available to revamp following closures. On the other end, guests, Mangiamele says, are craving hospitality that delivers value they can trust.
Who better to do that, he notes, than a chain with generational equity.
Steak & Ale in Burnsville will arrive near a hospital and a shopping mall that’s off Highway 35E, the major interstate that runs from Texas up through Minnesota. The brand itself, Mangiamele says, will draw traffic from these spots alongside existing hotel customers. Thankfully, the parking lot isn’t small.
Mangiamele expects trial to flow like a tidal as word of Steak & Ale’s opening spreads. People have told him countless times, from ex-workers to diners relaying personal anecdotes, they’d get on a plane and make a trip of it when the day arrives.
“Because you know why?” Mangiamele says. “People love a comeback story. You know why? People love heritage brands, iconic brands, historic brands. They love it. They have a love for these brands and I’ve never heard a bad story [about Steak & Ale].”
Again, the torrent of sentiment around Steak & Ale weighs on Mangiamele and has kept its timeline secondary to the need to “get it right.” Brinker created the brand to fill a gap between fast food and fine dining. In some ways, outside of mom-and-pops, such a thing didn’t materially exist in 1966. Casual dining and the branches that spread from Steak & Ale—Outback cofounder Chris Sullivan worked at Steak & Ale out of college and became its EVP (he later clocked time at Bennigan’s, too), in one example—originally resonated so strongly with consumers because they provided experiences in family, wallet, and time-friendly settings. Steak & Ale, in particular, earned its raving base by doing all that while also serving steak and unlimited salad.
“We recreated something that I think is truly special,” Mangiamele says. “And I’m not a cult of one, which is even better because there’s a real unfilled need and desire to experience something legendary.”
“This has been a labor of love for me for the last dozen years,” Mangiamele says. “And so it’s how do you reintroduce it? How do you retain the energy, the vibe, the atmosphere that made it so comfortable and was key to so much of the success 57 years ago?”
It’s been a continual examination of details. Supply chain. Marinades. Keeping and updating recipes, as noted earlier. Volume pricing. Market strategy.
Regarding that last point, like Bennigan’s, Mangiamele ran a highlighter through small-town America on a map. Texas Roadhouse and even Chipotle, are among the growing number of restaurant brands holding to this approach of late. Mangiamele says Steak & Ale wants to open where it can tap into small-town hospitality and be an immediate landmark. “Let’s bring our brands to the smaller cities and never a side note, we’re the main event,” he says. “And from a franchising standpoint, it makes infinite sense because you can really create some wealth and from an operations standpoint.”
And one reason he believes the strategy will land is Steak & Ale is about the furthest thing from a fad you could find. “We recreated something that I think is truly special,” Mangiamele says. “And I’m not a cult of one, which is even better because there’s a real unfilled need and desire to experience something legendary.”
Steak & Ale, and Bennigan’s for that matter, have literal trademarked menu items, like the Oh, Baby Back Ribs and World Famous Monte Cristo. Bennigan’s was even the backdrop of 2022-released romcom “About Fate.” Mangiamele tells a story where a family a month or so ago reached out and asked if they could bring a big group to the Elgin, Illinois, location. They were celebrating an anniversary by heading up to Chicago and realized there was a Bennigan’s nearby. So the whole family showed from Florida. “That’s a perfect illustration of the strong emotional connection,” Mangiamele says.
More than anything, it’s the center of why Mangiamele refers to reviving Steak & Ale as a “crusade.” He’s been working with Arnold for the better part of four years. The final push must be as deliberate as the initial one, he says. By the time everything is organized and converted, Steak & Ale is going to “train like we’re in a Marine boot camp,” Mangiamele says. He recently listed the GM position on his personal LinkedIn account because, naturally, there was no chance Mangiamele wasn’t going to interview the candidate himself. “It’s benign dictatorship all the way through. We can’t get it wrong,” he says. “The service levels have fallen dramatically in so many different concepts and we’re going to make sure that we train, train, train, back of the house, dining, the bar, until we’ve got it right.”
Mangiamele calls it “hiring a team of eagles.” Or, phrased differently, Steak & Ale will open with a staff who understands the mission and is passionate about delivering it. “We can have the best strategy. We can have the best-looking restaurant. We can have the best menu,” Mangiamele says. “But if it’s not being executed by a team of eagles, it won’t matter. Like I’ve said before, people and passion and culture will beat strategy and tactics every day of the week.”
Personally, Mangiamele can’t help but reflect on the doorstep of reopening Steak & Ale. Atalaya Capital Management, Bennigan’s owner out of bankruptcy, originally brought Mangiamele, a former Salsarita’s CEO, to lead its turnaround. He could have leapfrogged into another opportunity afterward or joined some corporate suite. But instead, Mangiamele and his wife put their own money up. Were there naysayers at the outset? Zero question, Mangiamele says. But the flip side outweighs it all. “It’s heart rendering to be honest with you,” he says. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done. Our teams. My franchise partners. Suppliers. Because they’ve all stuck by me in such tough times.”
“The last decade has never been tougher in our industry, ever,” Mangiamele continues. “And to be able to survive and then thrive and then not shrink but grow, and then reintroduce a brand that people in their heart of hearts love, is an amazing accomplishment. And one that I share not individually, but with everyone who has ever had a touch on these brands; that cared for these brands; loved these brands. Because, again, I always talk about the emotional connection. Of course, the equation goes into how you build revenue and trial and that’s how you build sales … But there’s something more intrinsic to that—and that’s love and fun. It sounds simple, but man does it carry a lot of weight.”