Maguire is betting that the key to success is a return to Friendly’s as it once was. The chain recently put the company’s more than 6,000 cooks, servers, and managers through additional training. “Not just retraining them on what they do or how they do it, but why,” Maguire says. “We’ve put them all in new uniforms and tried to make them proud of what they do.” They renamed the sundae makers Scoopologists and the servers Memory Makers, “because, technically, that’s what they do,” a manager in Middleborough tells me.
However, Christopher Muller, a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, thinks investing too much hope in the nostalgic past can be dangerous, especially in a country where a quarter of American households consist of one person and more than half of marriages end in divorce. “You can’t build off family anymore — it doesn’t work. There is no family,” Muller says. Adds Paul, the Technomic president: “You’ve got new players like Panera that meet breakfast and lunch [demand] and are family-oriented enough — where does it fit in? The best way to sum it up is to say the consumer has decided they’re not that relevant.”
“Relevance” is a word Friendly’s executives use a lot these days. “This is a brand started in the thirties, so we said, let’s hearken back to those roots,” says Maguire. “Let’s create a look that’s timeless but that’s relevant to the 21st century.” At headquarters, Maguire, Maura Tobias, and Dave Panella, senior director of design and construction, gather in what they’ve dubbed the “Timeless Room.” It’s there that Panella and some of his staff have been digging through boxes of old photographs Curtis Blake gave them for inspiration.
Walking through the restaurant, Panella points to the improvements, all of which are made over just four days. Lighting is brighter, upholstery has been redone, and the old wallpaper was torn down. Everything has been deep-cleaned and freshened up with paint. There’s Wi-Fi now, and lots of throwback musicians like the Zac Brown Band coming through the speakers. Staff make red velvet waffle cones near the entrance so customers will smell them right away.
Each store gets one of 10 or so old-timey murals and the tag line “Creating Memories Since 1935” (“That’s very timeless,” Panella says) and lots of new photographs on the wall from Friendly’s past. At this shop, near new high-top tables and stools — “I probably won’t sit there but my grandkids will love them!” one woman told them during a focus group — there’s a photo of Prestley Blake, with his bow tie retouched in bright red for a whimsical pop of color to complement the Friendly’s color scheme.
For the first time in a long time, both Curtis Blake, now 96, and his brother, 98, are confident the future of the chain they started is being served by a return to past strengths. “As time went on, the history of the company and the heritage faded and got lost,” Curtis says. “John Maguire has decided that the heritage is important. Friendly’s is 78 years old this summer, and he wants to make the most of it.”
The brothers haven’t had any official role with the company in decades, but both speak with Maguire regularly. “We’re delighted, and I think he’s going to make it,” Curtis says. He has eaten off the new menu in two of the remodeled locations and was very pleased — he thinks other people will be, too. “There’s a big following. Friendly’s has a big reservoir of good will.”
And at least among nostalgia-minded customers, there’s no serious competition. “Brigham’s is gone. Howard Johnson’s is gone. They’re all gone,” Curtis says. “There’s nobody as old as ours.”