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Aug '08

The Bright Side of the End of Bennigans

With the recent news that restaurant chains Bennigans and Steak and Ale are declaring bankruptcy, a possible silver lining is starting to emerge from the dark clouds of the American casual dining scene; the rise of the local restaurant.

One surprising indicator of this potential trend is that local neighborhood restaurants overshadowed their often flashier, more famous counterparts at this year’s James Beard Awards.

Of course, Steak and Ale and Bennigans aren’t the only restaurant chains feeling the economic pinch.

The Cheesecake Factory recently posted disappointing quarterly earnings. Old Country Buffet, Baker’s Square, and Village Inn are other chain casualties of the downturn.

One of the main reasons cited for the Bennigans bankruptcy was that many customers perceived the chain as being generic with outdated menu offerings.

Bill Marvin, author of Restaurant Basics which looks at restaurants from the diners’ point of view described the chain as being, “…just one more place to eat.” according to this Newsweek article.

As Marvin says, “The thing that’s been missing in the hospitality business is hospitality.” His prescriptive for restaurants in this economy is to “provide a heartfelt experience…it’s about being a real honest place for hospitality, where people really care and you feel well served.”

Luckily, with an emphasis on personal service and their non-cookie cutter menu items, many good local restaurants are uniquely poised to take advantage of this post-Bennigans opportunity.

Often, smaller restaurants are much more open to using fresh, local ingredients that showcase regionally inspired flavors than their big chain counterparts. As a result, they are more likely to attract the kind of skilled chefs who have the talent to make the most of the advantages that come with being small but flexible.

Also, since they’re usually owned and managed by people from the areas they serve, local restaurants can more accurately gauge and predict their diners’ evolving tastes.

Local restaurants also increase the demand for area jobs and services that keep revenue circulating within the communities they serve, unlike revenues from many national restaurant chains, where much of the money often ends up going out of state to their distant corporate headquarters and bulk suppliers.

Best of all, every time diners eat such regional dishes as Charleston, SC’s shrimp and grits, Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pie, and New Orleans crawfish etouffee they are in effect both celebrating and casting a vote for the vibrancy of regional American cuisine and the local restaurants that serve it.

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