New Friendly’s CEO promises ‘recipe for success’ at restaurant chain that has steadily shrunk for decades

Who is going to swoop in and save the day for Friendly’s? Superman. Not the man of steel. The ice cream flavor called Superman, which promises vanilla plus yellow, red and blue fruit flavors. Due out March 15, Superman ice cream is the first of what new CEO Craig Erlich promises will be periodic refreshes of the Friendly’s restaurant menu, with new ice cream flavors paired with returning favorite food items. From March to June, Asian chicken salad and Buffalo chicken salad will return, along with the Heinz 57 burger and the Vermonter burger.

It’s all part of the latest attempt to reinvigorate a brand that has struggled for years under different owners and against other fast-casual family restaurant chains like Applebee’s and TGI Fridays.

And it comes as businesses adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted government orders temporarily closing restaurants and dramatically altering how they serve customers.

Erlich is president and CEO and an investor in new Friendly’s owner Amici Partners and its affiliated company, Brix Holdings LLC.

The Friendly’s restaurant business was sold to Amici Partners last month out of a bankruptcy proceeding, with a sale price of $1.9 million. That’s a pittance compared to the $337.2 million price when Friendly’s sold to Sun Capital in 2007.

But that was before Sun Capital divested itself of much of what used to be Friendly’s. Sun sold off real estate including the ice cream plant and office building in Wilbraham, as well as the entire Friendly’s business making ice cream for its restaurants and for sale in supermarkets.

Friendly’s under Sun Capital went through another bankruptcy in 2011 that wiped away $297 million in debt and resulted in the closing or more than 100 of its restaurants.

The chain was founded by brothers Curtis and S. Prestley Blake in the summer of 1935 in Springfield’s Pine Point neighborhood. Curtis Blake died in 2019 at age 102. Erlich said Friday that he hasn’t spoken with Pres Blake, who is 106 and lives in Connecticut.

Friendly’s has shrunk substantially over the years, from 850 restaurants in 15 states at its height in 1996 to 137 restaurants in 12 states today. It has 1,300 employees.

In one of its early moves, Amici moved Friendly’s headquarters to its offices in Dallas, Texas, and Long Island, New York.

Erlich said some of the corporate employees brought over from the old Friendly’s ownership — folks working from home now because of the pandemic — will stay at the office in Wilbraham.

The latest bankruptcy process allowed Sun Capital to expedite its sale of the chain and not be forced to negotiate with creditors that hold liens on Friendly’s assets. It followed nearly a year of negotiations between Sun Capital and Amici, according to court papers. The sale closed at the end of December.

Amici’s other brands are Red Mango Yogurt Café & Juice Bar, Smoothie Factory Juice Bar, Redrick Pizza Kitchen Cafe and Souper Salad.

All surviving Friendly’s restaurants — 51 corporate locations and 86 franchises — will remain, Erlich said. But they might move within their market due to real estate needs or changing market conditions.

He said his new management team is working closely with Dairy Farmers of America. That company recently bought Dean Foods, which bought the Friendly’s ice cream manufacturing and distribution business in 2016 for $155 million in cash. Dairy Farmers of America operates the Friendly’s ice cream plant in Wilbraham.

“My people are on the phone with them all the time,” Erlich said.

In the restaurants, Erlich said he and his team know they must tackle Friendly’s slow reputation and speed up service. That will mean new technology and rearranging kitchen equipment, he said. It also means designing menus so ingredients and processes have more than one use.

And there are the plans for new ice cream offerings. This summer’s flavor will be Summer Breeze, with a lemon flavor and a graham cracker caramel swirl. It will be paired with what Erlich described as a “seafood extravaganza.”

“Every time that we launch a new campaign, we’ll have a new ice cream flavor launched with it,” he said. “We felt that our plan forward had a recipe for success for 2021.”

And beyond.

“Our strategy is built from 2021 through the next three to five to 12 years,” he said.

Past management teams have tried — and abandoned — similar steps to rejuvenate the brand, including smaller mini-Friendly’s restaurants, fast-serve locations with walk-up counters and, briefly, Friendly’s with beer and wine.

They are solutions Sun Capital described in a recent bankruptcy filing, admitting it “encountered many of the same performance issues faced by the fast-casual dining sector as a whole, including substantial headwinds caused by shifting demographics, increased competition and rising costs.”

The paragraph concludes: ”The business, which consistently lost money, relied on borrowings … as the only way to sustain operations.”

So Friendly’s — born in the Great Depression because the Blake brothers’ feared they wouldn’t be able to get summer jobs — is reinventing itself during a new economic crisis.

“If you are a sitting duck, you get hit,” said Atul Sheel, associate department chair and associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “All of the restaurant chains are limping. It’s not just Friendly’s.”

But Friendly’s was hurting before COVID-19. There is the widespread opinion among consumers that time has passed it by, Sheel said.

“The consumer is always looking for something new,” he said. “That’s why McDonalds is always coming out with new menu items.”

The pandemic only accelerated trends — curbside pickup, online ordering, delivery — that existed before 2020. Erlich said Friendly’s needs to do a better job on all these fronts and said a new app — smartphone application, not appetizer — is on the way.

Erlich also promised other improvements. Only a dozen Friendly’s have drive-thru windows now. That number, he hopes, will rise.

Stephen Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said it’s anticipated that 3,400 to 4,000 restaurants across the state will soon close or have already closed due to the pandemic. That works out to 22% or 23% of the 16,000 restaurants the state had at the beginning of March 2020.

“I do think there is a sense of optimism,” Clark said.

More people are getting coronavirus vaccines. The state is heading into a season where there will be the opportunity for more outdoor dining. Clark said there will be pent-up demand once the virus eases.

“People feel cooped up,” he said. “Not everyone can get on an airplane, but everyone can go to their local restaurant.”

And that includes Friendly’s. Like a lot of New Englanders, Clark not only ate at Friendly’s, but also worked there as his first job.

“I was an ice cream scooper in West Roxbury,” he said.

Erlich said his 5th birthday party was at a Friendly’s. He said he wants more kids to have the same memory.

“We are very excited about the future,” he said. “The team is passionate about moving us forward.”