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Some Friendly advice

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / October 12, 2011

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Friendly Ice Cream Corp. last week became the latest in a string of classic American restaurant chains to file for bankruptcy protection. The Wilbraham company, founded in 1935 , abruptly closed more than 60 locations and now hopes to reinvent itself as a leaner, more viable business by early December.

Chief executive Harsha V. Agadi said the company is working on a new concept to be unveiled next spring that will give Friendly¹s restaurants a trendier look, feature iPads for order-taking, and focus on healthier foods.

We asked some outsiders with restaurant industry expertise to offer their advice on what else the chain might consider to improve its chances of success post-bankruptcy.

Soup, sandwich, and ice cream

Daniel R. Newcomb, principal at Atlantic Restaurant Group, a commercial real estate firm that specializes in selling and leasing restaurants, and a former Howard Johnson franchisee

Concept: Put a Friendly's ice cream counter inside Panera Bread, like Steve's Ice Cream was inside D'Angelos for some time. Keep the Fribble.

"The best place to put Friendly's is to put it to bed with Brigham's and Howard Johnson restaurants. They were great concepts during the day. But our lives have changed. They should just focus on what they do best -- ice cream."

Clean, friendly fun

Mike Tesler, president of Retail Concepts, a retail consultancy in Norwell

Concept: Focus on being family-friendly. Hire a cleanliness concierge who can be called with the push of button every time something spills so the place is spotless. Feature an interactive, creative kids menu -- waffles shaped like rocket ships, ways for kids to play (and eat) their food with chocolate syrup squirters.

Partner with Five Guys and serve its burgers and fries inside Friendly's. Put hedges in the front of the restaurant that are shaped like the logo (the way it is on the Mass Pike near Friendly's headquarters). Have iPads available with branded Friendly's games.

"Average is over. For a time, average is what Americans wanted. The Gap. Chevrolet. Friendly's. Average is totally over. Make Friendly's fresh and fun instead of tired, boring, predictable, and dirty with food that stinks."

Back to basics

Christopher Muller, Dean at Boston University's School of Hospitality

Concept: Move the kitchen, especially the griddle, back to the front of the store.

Return to short order cooking, with menu items that diners can watch being prepared. Bring back full counter service by taking away booths up front.

Limit the menu to five to 10 items that are great, such as the Fribble, the Fishamajig sandwich, and the Wattamelon roll. Focus on the ice cream as a super-premium product, with new flavors and renewed classics. Close for a day, just as Starbucks did last year, to start from scratch on customer service and menu knowledge. Raise all prices to fit in with today's "fast casual business," and stop all discounting and free programs except for free sundaes for kids younger than 10.

"Many of us say we love Friendly's but what we really love is the memory of Friendly's. Friendly's needs to go back to restaurant basics -- serve hot food hot, cold food cold, and bring them both to the table with a smile."

Ice cream spinoff

Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago market research firm

Concept: Jettison the meal menu and create smaller stores that serve ice cream and snack-related products. Give them the look and feel of Starbucks, a place where people gather. Use new logos and branding so people know it's not the old Friendly's.

"If they can get capital to almost start a new concept, that would be best. They have to look different and feel different from what they are. That parade has passed."


Friendly's history

Friendly's history

A look back at the history in New England of Friendly's restaurants, from Fribbles and ice cream to burgermelts and breakfast.