By Sandra Pedicini
What’s old is becoming new again in Central Florida, as several restaurant chains that left town years ago have begun returning.
Bennigan’s, Schlotzsky’s, Del Taco and Bruegger’s have all decided to give the area a second chance.
There are several reasons for the resurgence, experts say. More folks are eating out again as the economy slowly recovers. The still-soft real-estate market means owners can get deals on buildings.
And throngs of theme-park tourists who want a little familiarity make Orlando a perfect spot to reintroduce an old favorite.
“The idea of taking an old brand and reinventing it can be easier to do than re-creating it from scratch,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant-research company Technomic. “I think there’s this nostalgia around certain brands.”
This fall, Bennigan’s will reopen its restaurant at International Drive and the BeachLine Expressway.
Bennigan’s closed most Central Florida restaurants and many others nationwide in 2008, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in the midst of that year’s economic meltdown. It and other midrange restaurants struggled particularly as many Americans essentially stopped going out to eat.
Now, Bennigan’s has a new chief executive officer and has begun retooling its restaurants. Customers can play darts or Wii bowling, watch flat-screen TVs and gather on exterior patios with outdoor bars.
Central Florida is a perfect place for one of the first new Bennigan’s restaurants, Chief Executive Officer Paul Mangiamele said.
“There’s a great influx of tourists that go there domestically and internationally,” he said. Rebuilding in Orlando will provide an opportunity “for all those thousands of eyes to see the new Bennigan’s.”
Shannon Flesch of Waterford Lakes has fond memories of Bennigan’s from her college days and can’t wait to try the new one.
“I was very sad when I found out they were closing there a couple years ago,” said Flesch, 31, who still has cravings for the turkey sandwiches on pretzel buns she used to enjoy there. “I thought they were a pretty successful chain. I think we’ve probably gone there my entire life.”
Schlotzsky’s also has reinvented itself since closing many of its restaurants, including all of those in Central Florida in 2001. Atlanta-based Focus Brands boug ht the chain in 2006.
New stores will sell treats from the company’s other restaurants, Cinnabon and Carvel. Schlotzsky’s now builds free-standing restaurants instead of putting them in strip centers as it used to do. It has updated its interiors, with tables, chairs, light fixtures and wallpaper all featuring circular patterns mimicking the shape of sandwiches.
The post-Sept. 11 economy, a low-carb craze and heavy debt all hurt Schlotzsky’s in years past, President Kelly Roddy said.
The chain had 750 restaurants at its peak. It has 370 now but plans to add more. In the Orlando area alone, Schlotzsky’s hopes to build 30 restaurants within five years.
“We had all the pieces of the puzzle together to support this,” Roddy said. “It’s just a great time to be growing.”
And Orlando is a great place to grow, said Chris Muller, a former University of Central Florida restaurant professor and now dean of the Boston College School of Hospitality Administration.
“It’s a brand-friendly town,” he said.
But bringing back a chain that already has failed once in a market carries some risk. Bruegger’s, which returned to Central Florida a couple of years ago after leaving in the late 1990s, opened only one bakery here that has closed twice, most recently last month.
Bruegger’s would not answer questions about the closed store in Altamonte Springs, saying only that it will build more bakeries here.
“I think the risk is generally going to be higher when you’ve [already] failed,” Tristano said. “I think you’ll have a small group of consumers who will be excited, but the majority won’t really know the brand well enough. It will be trying to open their eyes to what the brand is and getting people to try it, which is always a challenge.”
Del Taco says it has met that challenge and successfully reintroduced Central Florida to its fast-food Mexican fare. The California-based chain began reopening in 2009, after leaving Central Florida about 20 years ago. Del Taco departed Central Florida after a licensee decided to leave the restaurant business and shuttered eateries around the southeastern United States.
Now, Del Taco has three restaurants here and will soon begin construction on another in Kissimmee.
Del Taco spiced up its deal for franchisees to help them get started during a difficult economy. It waived a $25,000 franchise fee and reduced royalty percentages paid back to the company.
Del Taco took a while to return because it first wanted to make sure “we were growing out at the pace we wanted in the western half of the country,” said Jim Lyons, chief development officer. “We were expanding eastward, and Orlando was a market we always wanted to get back to. Orlando is a very good restaurant market in general.”
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Source: Orlando Sentinel