Bennigan’s big Irish burger is a constant source of wonder to Paul Freeman, vice president of culinary services at Metromedia Restaurant Group, which operates Bennigan’s Irish American Grill & Tavern.
“I was in the restaurant the other night and was pleasantly surprised at how many people were ordering it, and then even more surprised when someone finished it.”
Not that the burger isn’t good; it’s just so big: two half-pound patties, two slices of cheese, mustard, pickles and an extra bun in the middle. At $8.99 that mouthful is one of 11 new or enhanced items — not counting the steak offerings — on the expanded menu Bennigan’s launched last year.
Freeman describes the menu revamp as the culmination of several years’ work that included taking a close look at the brand and the way guests relate to it. “We use the menu to tell our story of offering exceptional-tasting food with the spirit of Ireland,” he says.
Plano, Texas-based Metromedia Restaurant Group operates nearly 1,000 restaurants under the Bennigan’s, Bonanza Steakhouse, Ponderosa Steakhouse and Steak and Ale brands. Currently, 283 Bennigan’s are in 31 states, with 35 new units opening this year.
The menu revamp was absorbed over a period of time and features items like the Southwest sampler, tavern shrimp and oh, baby, back ribs. The expanded menu, which includes a major increase in photos of signature items like the o’Cajun grilled seafood platter, has been a hit with customers.
“We had a same-store-sales increase of 5.5 percent last year, outpacing the industry average, according to several leading indexes,” says Peggy Marshall-Mims, Metromedia’s vice president for corporate and brand relationships. “Can some of that be attributed to our revised menu? I think you can say that, plus the efforts our crew makes every day in the restaurants to bring these menus to life.”
Revamping the menu followed a step-by-step process. “It began with an ideation phase,” Freeman explains. “Then we go into development, followed by operational tests and then market tests where we benchmark with our guests.”
Along with Freeman the culinary team responsible for the revamp included certified executive chef Luke Belsito, who is director of culinary product development at Bennigan’s, and Carl Worthington, Bennigan’s manager of culinary product development.
In fact, it was Worthington who came up with the big Irish burger concept in the course of his continual quest to improve the chain’s hamburger line. Freeman recalls thinking that it might be too big. “But we thought it was different and exciting, and the guests confirmed it,” he asserts.
Freeman held research-and-development positions with Bob Evans Restaurants and Perkins Family Restaurants before joining Metromedia in 1994. He also is credited with creating Bennigan’s death by chocolate dessert.
With his research-and-development background, Freeman says he generally has a pretty good idea of what new items will make the menu. “But I’m continually surprised,” he says, pointing to what he called “stretch” items for Bennigan’s, such as the grill salmon Caesar salad, the fire-roasted salsa shrimp and the o’Cajun grilled seafood platter.
“Of course,” he adds, “it’s not what I like that’s important; it’s what the guests like.”
At Bennigan’s the entire process, from ideation to testing to menu, takes about 26 weeks. The chain constantly is refreshing its menu with new items, including six limited-time-offer promotions a year.
The fall promotion was designed to raise funds for the charitable group America’s Second Harvest and featured two desserts that became part of the expanded menu. One was white chocolate chill, featuring white-chocolate, almond and vanilla chocolate chip ice cream mixed with crumbled Oreo cookies. The other was Mary McClary’s very berry pie, with wild berries served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce.
Freeman says he enjoys R&D, particularly “seeing products develop, trying new things, seeing how we can ‘one-up’ our ideas from the previous year.”
Food is front and center at Metromedia, says Marshall-Mims. “When you walk into our lobby, you see a huge glass wall that looks right into the culinary center. You can see all the action. It was designed that way to make a statement that food is the core of our business.”
Some of the key menu improvements that stick out in Freeman’s mind over the last year include oh, baby, back ribs. “We took an item that needed some improvement, and now it is one of our top taste-rated items,” he observes. “The tavern shrimp with the fire-roasted salsa was another fun item.”
Freeman also remembers fondly Riley’s rib-eye, which the culinary team enhanced with a sweet soy-ginger marinade. Then there are the hand-battered chicken tenders, an item slated for continuous improvement that pops up in many places on the menu, including in Kilkenny’s country chicken salad, which, Freeman points out, is one of the chain’s top selling entrées.
Long before Bennigan’s became a MenuMasters winner, Freeman was a believer in the awards program. “I strongly believe in recognizing the behind-the-scenes R&D people,” he says. “They are the unsung heroes of our industry and an integral and vital part of this business.”