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What’s up at Friendly’s?

Changing times and tastes have the iconic New England chain struggling.

By Steven Syre and Beth Healy
Globe Staff / October 1, 2011

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The Friendly’s restaurant chain, a New England icon from years past, is facing serious financial trouble as it struggles to regain some of its old popularity in a world where tastes have changed.

Friendly Ice Cream Corp., a Wilbraham company that operates about 500 locations, is no stranger to financial distress. A series of owners and a heavy accumulation of debt have kept the budget restaurant chain in a bind for years. Sales have been on a slow but steady descent for more than half a decade.

But a bad economy and other complications have helped turn up the heat on Friendly’s finances. The company is getting squeezed by a continued decline in restaurant revenues and higher food commodity prices, making it even harder for the company to make ends meet.

Friendly has acknowledged talks with lenders and others as the company develops a plan to improve its “financial base.’’ That plan includes the possibility of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and a sale of the business, according to a person close to the company.

Friendly is owned by Sun Capital Partners Inc., a Florida private equity firm that purchased the business in 2007. Executives there did not return calls yesterday.

Industry analysts noted that Friendly operates in a casual family restaurant category that has been under pressure for years. It’s challenged on the lower end by more aggressive fast-food restaurants and on the higher end by casual dining competitors, most recently by so-called fast casual restaurants like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

But Friendly’s restaurants may have an even bigger problem. Their time may have simply come and gone, analysts say.

“Restaurants have a life cycle, and Friendly’s has hit it,’’ said industry analyst Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “I don’t think there is any marketing fix when you are a model of a restaurant that went out of style.’’

Even among its direct competitors, Friendly’s ranked 10th among 12 chains across the country in a consumer-preference survey published last month by Nation’s Restaurant News. Friendly’s scored poorly on questions on value, food quality, and reputation. Only one chain among the dozen ranked lower when consumers were asked if they were likely to return.

“If you’re going to survive in this segment, you have to be a strong player in things like value, food quality, service, and cleanliness,’’ said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at WD Partners, the consulting firm that ran the consumer survey.

Some Friendly’s locations seem popular and busy. Friendly’s Express on Harvard Street in the heart of Brookline’s Coolidge Corner was crowded yesterday afternoon with families, senior citizens, and others stopping by to eat ice cream, salads, or sandwiches.

Some said they were just trying the restaurant since it opened about a year and a half ago, while others said they often took advantage of the inexpensive and hearty food they’ve loved since childhood.

Dierdre Sanders, who works nearby, said there were few affordable options for lunch in Coolidge Corner. “It is convenient and it’s close,’’ said Sanders, 40.

Sara Kiarsis said she brings her 8-year-old daughter Audrey to Friendly’s as a treat. She used to go to the restaurant as a child and has fond memories of the food and gregarious wait staff. “I grew up going to Friendly’s. My daughter loves it,’’ she said. “You can still get the grilled cheese with the pickles.’’

Friendly’s can conjure that sense of nostalgia because it’s been a fixture in New England since the business was founded by brothers Prestley and Curtis Blake in the middle of the Depression in 1935. The brothers operated Friendly for decades but eventually sold the business to Hershey Food Corp. It changed hands again in the 1980s, went public in 1997, and finally was sold to Sun in 2007, adding hundreds of millions of debt to its balance sheet over the years.

James Vinick, a Springfield stock broker who, with his clients, controlled about 12 percent of Friendly’s stock before the sale to Sun Capital, criticized the new owners for their handling of the restaurant chain.

“I think they’ve done a horrible job,’’ Vinick said. He blamed too much turnover in the corner office at Friendly’s, as well as a real estate deal to sell off the chain’s property holdings and lease the stores back. And the menu, he said, has become too large and unfocused, straying from its burger roots. “It’s an abomination what’s transpired.’’

But menu changes are a big part of Friendly’s current campaign to attract new patrons with value pricing. It’s High 5 menu promotion offers five different selections, each one costing $5.

“Some of the things they’re doing - the High 5 campaign - is definitely a step in the right direction,’’ said Lombardi, the consulting firm executive. “But it’s only one step of a journey.’’

Jenifer B. McKim of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Steven Syre can be reached at syre@globe.com; Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

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