Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Quaking icons

The earthquake in Los Angeles hit 5.4 on the Richter scale, but it was a shiver compared with the aftershock from yesterday’s collapse of a casual-dining icon. The public was reminded in story after story that the flat-liner was the company that built the venerable Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale chains. But the industry knew S&A Restaurant Corp. on a far more emotional level. For many of casual dining’s best and brightest, the company was the finishing school where they learned the business. The bankruptcy filing must’ve been like seeing your first home razed.

If the foodservice industry had the equivalent of a Cooperstown, the list of S&A alumni could serve as the roster of charter nominees: Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, Tim Gannon (all of Outback fame), Doug Brooks (Brinker International), Dick Frank (Chuck E. Cheese’s), Dick Rivera, Hal Smith, Wally Doolin, Rick Berman, Lane Cardwell.

I used to joke that the MUFSO conference was just an S&A reunion in disguise. If an attendee was in a senior post at a casual-dining chain, chances were extremely high that he started at the operation that Norman Brinker conceived in the ‘60s as the obvious trade-up for baby boomers as they outgrew fast food. And for years it grew with their spending power and desire to dine out, becoming an industry force and prompting more imitation than the first reality-TV series.

But the company became part of a huge corporation and suffered the usual fate of losing its verve and agility. Upstarts roared past it, leaving the one-time innovator in a time warp.

More recent regimes did their best to revive the concepts, but the numbers suggest it was a pitched struggle. Systemwide sales for Bennigan’s, the spryer of the two concepts, slipped by about $13 million last year, and the chain contracted by about 10 stores, according to NRN research.

The times ultimately proved too daunting for the brands’ owner, prompting it to file for bankruptcy of the Chapter 7 variety. But franchisees believe they can make a go of it. The scuttlebutt is that they’ll try to provide the unification and support that once came from S&A. The model seems to be Ground Round, whose franchisees similarly found themselves orphaned when their franchisor suddenly threw in the napkin.

Now, of course, everyone is wondering what restaurant chain might be next. In media ranging from overseas newspapers to National Public Radio, the bankruptcy was cited as a weathervane for the economy, a milestone on the road to ruin. The surprise development is being portrayed as a leading indicator.

A fair-sized group of casual dining veterans probably knows better. They’re likely aware that many of S&A’s problems were a function of age and decisions made—or not made—decades ago.

For them, it was likely a seismic shift of another sort, and far more saddening than worrisome.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever something like this happens, my heart goes out to all the great talented people who worked their butts off and did nothing wrong that lose their jobs. May they all land on their feet with better opportunities.

    Sincerely, Steakman