End of an Era?

Friday, September 30, 2011, 11:38 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Friendly's logoNo, I’m not referring to reports that Terry Francona and Theo Epstein are or soon will be out as manager and general manager, respectively, of the Boston Red Sox.

I’m talking about ice cream.

The Friendly’s restaurant chain is preparing for a possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and potential sale, said people familiar with the matter.

Friendly Ice Cream Corp., which employs roughly 10,000 people and operates more than 500 restaurants known for sundaes and hamburgers, could seek protection from creditors as soon as next week, the people said.

The Wilbraham, Mass.-based company would then try to sell itself through a bankruptcy auction, the people said.

A slumping U.S. economy has forced many consumers to dine out less frequently, crimping Friendly’s sales just as rising prices for corn, butter and other ingredients drained its cash.

[ . . . ]

Friendly’s began as a small ice cream shop opened by two brothers during the Great Depression in Springfield, Mass. It later added hamburgers and started expanding along the East Coast through the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1970s, the company operated hundreds of locations in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S.

To say that Friendly’s is a Bay State icon is an understatement. Travelers on the Mass Pike in Wilbraham can see the company’s logo crafted in shrubbery on an embankment alongside the highway. Anyone who grew up around here has memories of outings with family or friends for supper (optional) and sundaes (mandatory). When I was a pre-teen/young teenager, my friends and I would go to White City Cinemas in Shrewsbury for a movie, followed by ice cream at the Friendly’s next door. It was at that same Friendly’s that I had ice cream with the future love of my life in what would have been our first date if three of his classmates and my mother hadn’t been with us at the same time. Friendly’s was a fun and affordable place to take my son occasionally for lunch or a treat when I was a struggling single mother. When I finally bought my first house earlier this year several towns away from where I lived for 43 years, I was glad to see a Friendly’s just a half mile away.

The beginning of Friendly’s decline was when the founders sold the company. Outsiders swooped in thinking they’ll take a success and make it even bigger and better, but in the process they lost what made it a success in the first place. Expansion outside New England wasn’t particularly fruitful. If those steering the company through the bankruptcy process are smart, they’ll refocus on preserving the brand where it’s best known and most loved. It would be sad if I didn’t have the chance someday to take my grandchildren to Friendly’s for their first ice cream cone.

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