Last week, I had the pleasure of dining with John Maguire, CEO of Friendly’s, at the Friendly’s on Arsenal Street in Watertown. The dinner was part of Friendly’s effort to reach out to area bloggers to explain the changes the brand is making, and featured an introduction to Friendly’s new look, new food, and new focus on the modern diner. (And, they sent me home with ice cream for my kids, who now see me as the ice cream superhero.)
Since I had read this article about the company’s efforts to revitalize in a few weeks before, I was intrigued by the invitation to this dinner. What I learned is that the company is serious about fixing its past mistakes so it can remain relevant for 21st century diners.
With two small kids, I’m always looking for a great place to go out to dinner or grab brunch on a busy weekend morning. My criteria is probably similar to a lot of other parents: good value for my money, healthy food options for both kids and adults, cleanliness, and an atmosphere that’s flexible enough to accommodate small kids who may spills their drinks, yell at their siblings, and want to get up from the table to walk around the restaurant three times during the meal.
I hadn’t been to a Friendly’s in years. The last time we visited, it was, frankly, a disappointment. The food was sub-par, the service was lousy, and the restaurant was in bad shape. I left disappointed, and my sense, from speaking with the team at Friendly’s, is that I wasn’t the only one.
Maguire explained that they had heard feedback similar to mine from many customers and they were seeing an increase in competition; from Panera to IHop to Coldstone Creamery, competition comes to them from various sources. Friendly’s therefore needed to respond in order to stay in business. When the company started to develop a plan for overhauling itself, the leadership began by asking, “Should Friendly’s exist?” In essence, do people still want Friendly’s, a restaurant and ice cream brand that was established in 1935 in Springfield, Massachusetts? It’s an honest question, and, after research and focus groups, they found that the answer from their customers was yes, we want Friendly’s to succeed, and we want it to be better.
Maguire explained Friendly’s algorithm for the company’s new approach:
great people + great tasting food + clean environment = success
This is math most people can get behind and seems so simple, right?
My dinner last week was part of that equation. The Watertown restaurant is one of a wave of restaurants that were remodeled in 2013; other locations are scheduled to be overhauled in 2014. This restaurant now has a retro vibe but with a modern look. The décor felt like the 1950s through a 2013 lens, with bold colors and black and white photography celebrating the local community. It felt like the Friendly’s I remembered.
And, the service was terrific—but then I was eating with the CEO. All of the servers (or “memory makers” as they call them) have been retrained and rehired—if they could work with the company’s higher expectations for customer service. Additionally, Maguire noted that many customers want the casual dining experience but don’t want to have to wait long for their meals, so Friendly’s aspires to a 45-minute dining experience. Perfect for kids.
And, the food. I tried 13 different menu items during the dinner—from a Fribble to the turkey tips to the Apple Harvest Chicken Salad. I even tasted Friendly’s famous Fishamajig. Oh, and ice cream. I definitely had ice cream.
The food was good, delicious even (I totally understand now why people get the Fishamajig), and I was pleased to see new salads for those of us seeking healthier choices.
I asked Maguire how healthy the new menu is, especially the kids’ meals. He explained that they have added, and are continuing to add, new items to the kids’ menu that are health conscious. One of the ways they do this is by giving options to diners, so they can mix and match the sides—such as vegetables and fruit—that appeal most. He also acknowledged that, with a focus on comfort food, Friendly’s is an “indulgent brand” so “the quality of the food has to be worth it; it has to taste so good it makes sense to indulge.”
Indulging isn’t difficult at Friendly’s. “What makes us special is the ice cream,” noted Maguire. He added that, in most casual dining restaurants, six percent of the diners get dessert, while, at Friendly’s, 75 percent do.
The ice cream really is the hook. Friendly’s makes 26 million gallons of ice cream a year! That’s a whole lot of mint chocolate chip. Half of the company’s nearly $500 million of sales comes from its ice cream which is sold in 8,000 grocery stores in the US.
According to Maguire, the number one selling restaurant item is the honey barbeque supermelt, while the top selling item from the kids menu is (as you might expect) the chicken fingers. One of the goals of the menu overhaul was to put better quality ingredients in the mix, and streamline the offerings so they resonated with Friendly’s core audience of seniors and families. This means hello to Mac & Cheese, cheesy sandwiches, and yummy soups and good-bye to the stir-fry, quesadilla, and similar food items.
Friendly’s has 70 locations in Massachusetts alone (and two more coming to the Boston area next year), with restaurants from New England to the Carolinas. Since it was founded in Massachusetts, it feels, in many ways, like a local company, one that Maguire and his colleagues are hoping people will root for by giving the restaurant a second chance, especially if they, like me, had a bad experience in the past. The 15,000 people who work for the company undoubtedly feel the same way.
The true test will be what it’s like to dine at Friendly’s without the CEO and head chef (that’s Michael O’Donovan with Maguire in the photo above). Perhaps I’ll revive our ice cream summer bucket list and head over to the restaurant this weekend for a Happy Ending Sundae…
Disclosure: I was a guest of Friendly’s for this dinner and received ice cream to bring home. All of the opinions here, however, are mine.