Bennigan’s Monte Cristo proves the power of an iconic sandwich
The Monte Cristo has ham and turkey, Swiss and American cheese on honey wheat bread. It’s then dipped in batter, fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with jelly.
Paul Mangiamele was in Sonoma, California, with his wife last year, eating dinner at a French restaurant, when a Tennessee couple at the next table loudly made a comment about the croque-monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich) they had ordered.
“That’s just a Monte Cristo we used to get at Bennigan’s!” Mangiamele quoted the man as saying, imitating the customer’s Tennessee drawl.
Mangiamele couldn’t help himself. “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion,” he said to the couple. And then he revealed who he is: CEO of Dallas-based Bennigan’s. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “When we were in this great restaurant, and they were remembering Bennigan’s.”
At least part of Bennigan’s comeback story is rooted in the company’s unique sandwich menu, notably that Monte Cristo—Mangiamele was quick to note that Bennigan’s now calls it “The World Famous Monte Cristo.” Sandwiches, not including burgers, represent 40 percent of the company’s non-drink menu sales, and the Monte Cristo is its best-selling item.The two couples ordered drinks and talked about the restaurant chain. Mangiamele told them about the chain’s renaissance, how it’s making an unlikely comeback five years after its previous owner nearly left the chain for dead.
As that pair from Tennessee guessed, the Monte Cristo is an outgrowth of the croque-monsieur, a French sandwich popular in the early 20th century. Various cookbooks had published sandwiches that were essentially Monte Cristos, but with different names.
In 1976, restaurant legend Norman Brinker, working for Pillsbury and the creator of Steak and Ale, opened the first Bennigan’s in Atlanta. In the early 80s, around the time Brinker and senior management left Pillsbury to buy Chili’s, Bennigan’s added the Monte Cristo to its menu.
The sandwich would quickly become the company’s top menu item, and the company added other unique sandwiches, including the Turkey O’Toole, a turkey and cheese with honey Dijon dressing on a pretzel roll.
Fast forward to 2008. Metromedia Restaurant Group, the owner of Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and shut down company operations, including 170 company-owned units, more than half the system’s 300 locations. Many employees found out only when they arrived to work to find the restaurants’ doors padlocked.
At the time, the reaction among some was, “What will happen to the Monte Cristo?” One Texas restaurant, in fact, sent out a press release not long after the mass store closure to note that, “Fans of the famous Monte Cristo sandwich can still sink their teeth into one at the Chef Point Café in Fort Worth, Texas.”
Atlanta-based private equity firm Atalaya Capital Management rescued Bennigan’s from total oblivion by taking over the franchise system and the rights to the brand name. The chain was down to 34 locations in the U.S., a tenth of its peak.
The brand has subsequently undergone a complete makeover, with a new prototype and a new menu and new leadership. But the chain kept its sandwich line intact, only upgrading the quality of ingredients in the Monte Cristo.
For Mangiamele, that was a no-brainer. “This is our core menu,” Mangiamele said. “When you drift away from that, you’ll ruin the integrity of the brand.
“Over the last two years, if I heard one story about the Monte Cristo sandwich, I heard 100,” he said. “Nobody makes it like us.”
So far, for Bennigan’s, the results have been good. The chain has signed well-regarded operators, including Church’s Chicken franchisee Aslam Khan. The chain has 85 units total, and is opening one location a month.
At this rate, it may not be too long before that Tennessee couple gets their Monte Cristo again.