Friendly's Navigating Some Not-So-Friendly Waters

It's a bleak Friday in New England, and I'm not even going near the Red Sox story ("With Boston's Historic Collapse, Red Sox Fans Are Back to Blue," reads the Wall Street Journal's headline.)

The Journal's Mike Spector broke a different story yesterday that also has a lot of New Englanders in a tizzy: "Friendly's Restaurant Weighs Chapter 11." Citing sources "familiar with the matter," Spector says that the Wilbraham, Mass.-based company could seek protection from creditors as soon as next week and then would then try to sell itself through a bankruptcy auction.

Friendly's operates more than 500 restaurants and employs about 10,000 people. Sales were about $700 million last year. Buyout firm Sun Capital Partners paid $130.81 million in cash for all of Friendly's stock in 2007. There are the usual possible twists and turns to the high finance aspects of the story -- including a way Sun might retain ownership -- that Spector outlines.



The Boston Globe's Erin Ailworth reports that Friendly's would not comment "on rumors in the media or marketplace" but concedes that it's going through rough times.

"Like many restaurant chains, we are feeling the impact of the economic downturn and rising commodity prices and a challenging marketplace," it says in a statement. "We are working with our lenders, board and management team to explore alternatives to strengthen our financial base."

Comments about the report at the Boston Herald -- more than two dozen by early this morning -- start with: "First Brigham's, now Friendly's? What is happening to our New England family traditions?" But, by and large, the good will degenerates from there. Most of the positive comments are nostalgic; the ones about the here-and-now are along the lines of 1. Food is poor 2. Prices are high 3. Service stinks. Particularly the latter.

"Sad to see an institution like Friendly's go way, but it's not what it used to be," writes one Brighton_Corgi. "Friendly prices they are not. I was surprised how expensive it was when I went with my girlfriend last summer. Service is horrible and food was average at best. They have to revamp everything except the ice cream classics."

It's evidently not for lack of trying. In a video shot last December, CEO Harsha V. Agadi announces "the rebirth of the brand" in the Capital region of New York starting with a facelift at all of the 17 shops around Albany, retraining the more than 500 employees who work there and a new menu that retains old standbys (if you're wondering "what the heck is a "Fribble," as I was, here you go) as well as some "healthy options."

A few weeks ago, Friendly's rolled out its "High Five" campaign. One execution featuring CEO Agadi offers five popular menu items for $5 and sets a trillion high fives as a F2F viral goal. Another spot, starring a server named "Heidi," shows us three variants of the hand slap.

"If you're the sort of person who gets annoyed when servers sing 'Happy Birthday' to a patron or break into a line dance, you might want to avoid Friendly's," Ad Age's Maureen Morrison wrote at the time. "Believing that most chains 'don't display enough energy,' Harsha Agadi ... is ramping up 'a super aggressive and extremely simple" campaign to "get to the energy level like that of a high-school football game.'"

Rah-rah-siss-boom-bah, eh?

Writes Shira Ovide in the WSJ's "Deal Journal" blog: "Awww ... not the ice cream!" And then, after providing a concise timeline of major events in the history of the chain from the day that brothers Prestley and Curtis Blake opened the first parlor in Springfield, Mass., in 1935 (there's a more extensive one on the Friendly's site), Ovide continues to channel the inner child:

"We don't know what's going on this year with restaurant chains/food companies from our childhood. First, Sbarro's filed for bankruptcy. Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, hit financial trouble and hired advisers to help rework its big debt load. Quiznos did the same. And now Friendly's. Just drive a stake through fond memories."

Fuddruckers and Charlie Brown's Steakhouse are among the other restaurant chains that have filed for bankruptcy because of the economic downturn, Reuters reports

I get nostalgic for Wonder Bread myself. But I wouldn't eat it. And therein may lay Friendly's problem. Nostalgia is more of a mind game than an impetus to buy.

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