The New Friendly’s Cafe is the Latest Reinvigoration Effort By the 87-Year-Old Family Restaurant Franchise
For over 80 years, the Friendly’s franchise has delighted families with its delectable ice cream, breakfast and dinner food options. The family restaurant franchise was founded by Prestley and Curtis Blake in 1935 in Springfield, Mass., during the Great Depression. Throughout its history, the brand has been known for overcoming hard times and reinventing itself. From acquisitions and bankruptcy to war and recessions, the family restaurant franchise has seen it all.
The young Blake brothers conceived the idea for the restaurant when they wanted to open up an ice cream shop that provided a “friendly” place for customers to meet up for double-dip cones for 5 cents. While the brothers may have had differing personalities, they worked together to make something great. Starting the business at 20 and 18 respectively, Prestley and Curtis show that you can become a thriving business owner at a young age. Here, we go through Friendly’s history and begin with the brand’s newest reinvigoration effort: The Friendly’s Cafe.
As part of its reinvigoration effort, Friendly’s Restaurants recently announced the launch of its new fast-casual concept, Friendly’s Cafe, in Westfield, Mass. With this new concept, the franchise aims to serve its fan-favorite items, like hamburgers and ice cream sundaes, in a new fast-casual model. Customers will now be able to order and pay at their own speed at the counter or via a QR code at their table. Additionally, they can also order their food online and pick it up at the new location’s designated to-go areas or have it delivered to their homes. Friendly’s ice cream can also be ordered with a QR code or directly at the ice cream bar counter.
Streamlining the Customer Experience
Not only will this new concept be known for its faster service, but it will also be built to seat 45 customers in a small, 2,700 square-foot building and will have four parking spots reserved for curbside pick-up.
Using the lessons it learned from difficult times, the franchise has reinvented itself to keep fans coming back for more. This includes rejiggering its menu with new items like the Tater Kegs appetizer, Bangin’ Beef Stroganoff, and more. Here is the Friendly’s story of where it came from and how it got to where it is today.
Friendly’s has filed for bankruptcy multiple times. The first was in 2011, and the brand cited the Great Recession of 2008 and more for the filing. In 2020, the company filed for bankruptcy again. As with many restaurants during COVID-19 pandemic, the Friendly’s franchise struggled to stay above water. This is especially true for locations that struggled to transition to delivery and curbside orders. According to Forbes, Friendly’s cited the increased prices of commodities, like cream, and high rents for taking this bankruptcy action.
The franchise also has a history of being acquired. For example, shortly after the company filed for chapter 11 in November 2020, it was acquired by Amici Partners Group for just under $2 million. This is very low for a restaurant chain. According to its filing, the chain said that its unredeemed gift cards were expected to be about $1.2 million. Furthermore, this acquisition was also a stark contrast to its 2007 acquisition by Sun Capital Partners, which was about $337.2 million.
Going back decades, the brand, originally known as Friendly, was established during the height of struggle: the Great Depression in 1935. Prestley and Curtis Blake borrowed $547 to open an ice cream shop. The original Friendly restaurant didn’t serve food at all, just ice cream! It wasn’t until 1940 when they opened a second location due to increased demand. The expanded menu includes a signature item to this day: a burger served on bread rather than a bun.
During WWII, the brothers took a break from 1943-1945 and closed their shops until the war was won. The franchise enjoyed expansion after the armistice, tallying ten locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts by 1951. Interestingly, Curtis was named president of the company after winning a coin toss.
After arguing about where they saw the direction of the business going, the brothers sold the business to Hershey’s in 1979 for $164 million. Curtis felt that Prestley didn’t spend enough money to expand the business to its full potential.
Under the Hershey’s company’s leadership, Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces and Oreos became signature toppings to Friendly sundaes. Additionally, Hershey’s gave the company much needed fresh ideas, capital and renovation to its existing stores. Hershey’s also expanded the brand to more areas, and no locations stopped operating during the expansion and renovation. During this time, the Blake brothers pursued other passions, such as charitable endeavors. Prestley even received a PhD.
But, Hershey’s sold the company less than a decade later to Donald Smith and a group of investors from Tennessee Restaurant Company (TRC) for an even larger profit. The new owners changed the Friendly name to Friendly’s, which the company has been called since 1989.
From Friendly to Friendly’s
The company faltered again in the late 1990s. After noticing what had become of the company he started, Prestley began to buy Friendly’s shares. He told The Boston Globe, “It’s my baby… You can’t forget it. When you work so long and hard for a company and have high principles, you can’t let it go.”
According to online sources, the Friendly Ice Cream Corporation went public on the NASDAQ in 1997. The company then switched to the American Stock Exchange in 2000. Three years later, Prestley sued the company for misusing funds. Additionally, he pinned the stock’s price dipping to $1.70 a share on Smith, who bought the company for $375 million in 1988. According to his autobiography, “A Friendly Life,” Prestley didn’t understand why Smith had a jet. He suspected that Smith was using Friendly’s funds to pay for Perkins, a pancake joint Smith also acquired with TRC.
The Friendly’s Reinvigoration
In 2009, to reach out to more families and children, the family restaurant franchise made a “I Wanna Go To Friendly’s” campaign. It also created the Friendly’s Express concept, which was designed to offer faster take-out options for customers. It opened three more locations in addition to the original location in Mansfield, Mass. However, these locations seem to either have closed or were converted into traditional locations. Despite everything, they still kept as many locations as they could open and please the guests that they do have.
After the Acmi Partners Group, which is affiliated with BRIX Holdings, finalized its acquisition of Friendly’s in 2021, they planned to give the dining chain a much needed reinvigoration. Part of this innovative strategy was to bring back old favorites, like the Buffalo Chicken Salad, and add new items to the menu.
To get kids excited about the brand’s ice cream options, there will be a new flavor every quarter. For example, there was a Superman flavor, which was colored red, white and blue.
“The pandemic has opened up opportunities for off-premises dining, and we’ve recognized there’s a need to enhance that experience for customers,” said Craig Erlich, CEO and president of Friendly’s.
Erlich will also enhance the franchise’s loyalty program, which will be embedded within the app. The brand will also have curbside and third-party delivery options. As you can see, the Friendly’s brand is keeping up with the times in more ways than just opening its Friendly’s Cafe concept. Erlich will try to continue the Blake brothers’ legacy.
Lessons From the Blake Brothers’ Story
It is important to consider lessons from the Blake brothers and other iconic franchise founders like them. Eve during tough times, it is vital to believe in yourself and your business. If you don’t, then nobody else will. It is also important to plan for the future and keep up with the times because unexpected events, like a global pandemic, will happen. These lessons can be used by other brands to reinvent themselves like Taco Bell and others have done.