Friendly’s bids for comeback

Friendly's, the family restaurant chain founded by a pair of brothers in Massachusetts nearly 80 yea

It was sometime last fall, I think, that a flier with coupons arrived in the mail from Friendly’s inviting us to “come back.”

The family restaurant chain, founded by a pair of brothers in Massachusetts nearly 80 years ago, is trying to right itself after a tough couple of decades best remembered for corporate infighting, a succession of new owners, abrupt closings and a quick trip to bankruptcy court.

“We lost our way,” said the flier, alluding to the dingy restaurants, poor service and lower-quality ingredients that patrons had criticized.

Now, though, there’s a new CEO, and he’s embracing an earlier Friendly’s.

“Like you, I grew up with Friendly’s and I’m happy to say we’re back,” a smiling John Maguire says in a new TV spot, noting a streamlined menu of longtime favorites and “friendlier” service.

Maguire rechristened the chain’s sundae-makers “Scoopologists” and the servers “Memory Makers,” according to the Boston Globe. Fortune magazine reported that he made sure every employee was retrained before being rehired.

Maguire, formerly an executive at Panera Bread, became CEO in early 2012, soon after Friendly’s emerged from bankruptcy. The chain started anew with some 360 company-owned and franchised restaurants in 15 East Coast states from Maine to Florida. That’s about 100 fewer locations than it previously had; locally, we lost close to a dozen restaurants.

“Great family memories are my guarantee,” Maguire promises in the TV ad.

But “family” is a tough restaurant segment to be in, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago food industry researcher Technomic.

The category, which also includes Denny’s, IHOP and Perkins, has been struggling to compete against fast-casual chains such as Five Guys, Moe’s and Panera, he said, as well as the bit more upscale P.F. Chang’s, Olive Garden and Cheesecake Factory.

The family restaurant segment “hasn’t seen much growth,” Tristano said, pointing to its typical lower- to middle-income customer, who has struggled post-recession with unemployment and underemployment.

But so-called family occasions — families dining out together — “are not going away,” Tristano said. And key to that is appealing to the kids.

Friendly’s “continues to do a very good job with kids,” he said. Asked if he thought Friendly’s will survive, he responded, “Yes.”

It won’t be easy, though.

Like other legacy brands, Friendly’s has a core of older consumers and a comeback campaign focused on “the Friendly’s you once loved,” as the flier in my mailbox called it, will resonate with them.

Pulling in Millennials could be tougher. They’re notorious for being price conscious and lacking brand loyalty, Tristano said. But he thought contemporary promotions, such as ice cream “happy hours” and menus that stress sustainable sourcing and natural ingredients, will be important to “build a bridge to a new generation.”

And if they go on to bring their own kids to Friendly’s, the life cycle will continue.

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