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May the Best Brand Win: Chili's vs. Bennigan's

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One stays fresh while the other gets stale.

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When the beepers quit beeping at Bennigan's on July 29, 2008, it was among the first high-profile casualties of the recession. Diners who longed to be given a pager and the freedom to browse the racks at Aeropostale while they waited for their table to be ready had no choice but to drive the 50 feet to Chili's (EAT).

Which was precisely the problem: There really wasn't anything on Bennigan's menu that you couldn't get in a twice-as-delicious version somewhere else.

The last time you set foot in one, with its dark-and-dank decor, it probably felt more like George H.W. Bush's America than his son's. The restaurant refused to innovate, preferring instead to borrow liberally from the hackneyed formula that served competitors well, but felt forced, even suspect, at an Irish pub. That's right: An Irish pub, which was the spirit Bennigan's set out to channel when it first opened for business in 1976.

It's more than a little ironic that the restaurant's founder, Norman Brinker, would ultimately play a role in eating its lunch. After leading an exodus in 1983, he cooked up stiff competition in the form Chili's.

Chili's, of course, did the Tex-Mex thing to Bennigan's Irish pub. So when Southwest Eggrolls and Fajita Chicken Quesadillas showed up on the latter's menu, you knew something was amiss.

Straying from its roots meant going head to head with Chili's - and Friday's and Applebee's (DIN) and Olive Garden (DRI) . These restaurants, while far from perfect, had the good sense to build on their existing trademarks.

Navigation Friday's -- that boozy respite from a crushing work week -- served up a host of Jack Daniel's-inspired menu items, the perfect excuse to pour even more bourbon down the throats of its patrons. Applebee's, your go-to neighborhood joint, teamed with the Food Network's Tyler Florence to enhance its menu of American classics. Olive Garden channeled Italian hospitality and invited diners to carbo-load, free of charge, before their chicken parmesan ever made it to the table.

Bennigan's, meanwhile, became a middle-of-the-roader - just another in an endless series of casual-dining establishments you occasionally went to without quite knowing why. That might fly when the fundamentals of the economy are strong, but it's altogether less compelling when the chips are down. Inflationary forces, like higher food costs, don't help the bottom line, either.

As the recession continues to curb people's appetites for eating out, restaurants will do their level best to whet them again with deals. Red Lobster might be tempted to add a few steaks to its menu for the sake of diversity, but if it's smart, it'll stick to what it does best: Serving just-fresh-enough seafood.

Bennigan's would have done well to do the same.

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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