Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Death Awaits Us All



One of my earliest fast food memories was sitting at a tiny table under an anthropomorphic fiberglass apple tree opposite the ball pit, chowing down on my McNugget Happy Meal at my local McDonald’s. Another is pulling a free lollipop out of the hollow midsection of a seemingly larger than life Shoney Bear standee that towered over me at Shoney’s. Before the flame of my childlike wonder was snuffed out by a cynical world, I was mystified by a group of Chi-Chi’s employees gathered around my family’s table singing “Hey it’s your birthday” to the tune of “La Cucaracha” when I turned four. Across the street from the Lexington, Kentucky Chi-Chi’s at Darryl’s, sitting in the booth situated in an antique birdcage style elevator car was, and still is one of the highlights of my childhood. These early memories instilled in me an appreciation for a touch of whimsy in a dining experience. Well into my young adulthood a favorite weekend destination was Lambert’s Cafe, where hot yeasty rolls were thrown by servers from across the expansive dining room and customers would attempt, often successfully, to catch them at their tables. Now as a paunchy restaurant blogger with a mortgage and a bald spot, I find my favorite experiences are at restaurants that make a sincere attempt to make the dining experience fun and memorable. I was therefore excited to revisit Friendly’s.

I discovered Friendly’s a decade or so ago on a trip to a large antique mall housed in a former Hills department store in Northwestern Ohio. The size of the store and the long duration of the modern day treasure hunt that took place there meant that my companions and I would need to eat two meals nearby, so naturally we had both breakfast and lunch at the Friendly’s situated in an outlot of the former Hills. It was my first experience with the Friendly’s brand, and I was instantly a fan. Everything about the place was specifically curated to exude an aura of fun. The whimsically styled Cape Cod style building, the brightly colored drums of ice cream on display as you walked in the door, and the imaginative menu items were all designed to signal to diners that they were in a fun, friendly place. I recall having a fairly conventional breakfast that day, but marveled at the images of stacks of pancakes topped with ice cream on the menu. When I returned later in the day, I found the lunch menu just as novel. Everything had a unique and memorable name. Shakes were called Fribbles. There was something called a Fishamajig. It was the first time I had seen a burger that used grilled cheese sandwiches for buns, and indeed, that was exactly what I ordered before concluding the meal with two scoops of maple nut ice cream in a waffle cone brought to my table in a metal holder designed to keep the cone upright. I felt as if I had discovered a magical place. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that Friendly’s was on the verge of bankruptcy, which they officially declared in 2011. All Ohio locations closed not much later along with many others. History repeated itself last year when Friendly’s declared its second Chapter 11 flavor bankruptcy in less than a decade, but the chain has its roots in tough times. In 1935 brothers Prestley and Curtis Blake opened the Friendly ice cream shop in Springfield, Massachusetts at the height of the Great Depression. One shop became two shortly thereafter, and following World War Two, Friendly became a full blown restaurant chain gaining an apostrophe and S in the process to keep branding in line with what locals called the place. The chain peaked at over 800 locations. The Blake Brothers would retire and sell the Friendly’s empire to Hershey Foods in 1979, but both would live long enough to see the company declare bankruptcy at least once after bouncing around different owners over the next four decades. Curtis Blake died at age 102 in 2019, and his brother Prestley died earlier this year at the age of 106, mere weeks after it was announced that the restaurant investment firm Amici Partners Group LLC would be purchasing Friendly’s out of bankruptcy and supporting the remaining 119 locations mostly located in the Northeast and Midatlantic regions. 

A friendly place under a foreboding sky

Circumstances were such last week that I had a chance to travel to Maryland, home to what are now the nearest Friendly’s locations to me in Metro Detroit. My schedule allowed for only one stop, but I was determined to make it count. I settled on the Friendly’s in the Perry Hall area on the outskirts of Baltimore because it was a vintage freestanding Cape Cod building. It was a little bit further away from me than the bland strip mall location in Hagerstown, but the architecture more than justified the additional drive time. It was an unseasonably cold, damp, dreary day in late May when I arrived for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I had risen at 4 AM that day and driven 5 hours through the dark and fog to be there after attending a funeral the day before. I was ready for some classic Friendly’s brand whimsy to lighten my mood which was as dreary as the gray sky that hung over the Charm City. 

A photo from back before Friendly's got all possessive 

An adequate breakfast, proficiently prepared, but where's the flair?

I walked past the deserted outdoor serving window which would have been jammed with customers ordering ice cream to go on a warmer day and into the front door of the little Cape Cod, where I was quickly shown to a booth and handed a menu by a personable hostess/waitress. I reviewed the breakfast offerings with dismay to find there were no ice cream-topped pancakes to be found. Nothing looked whimsical or over the top. It was just a regular breakfast menu with regular boring breakfast food. Mildly disappointed, I ordered the silliest sounding thing I could, the “Big-Two-Do” and surveyed my surroundings. They were pleasant enough with photos of vintage Friendly’s locations on one wall and a mural of a stylized Fribble on another. The place at least looked fun. 

Want an easy laugh? Read this in your best old time radio announcer voice. 

Delicious is not an overstatement. Fun is, unless you follow breakfast with ice cream. 

Concluding my perfectly adequate but in no way distinctive breakfast, I reviewed the ice cream menu on my phone with the help of a handy QR code at my table and found that like the ice cream topped pancakes, my beloved maple nut flavor was gone from the menu. When my server returned, I ordered two scoops of the butter crunch flavor after she assured me that it wasn’t overly weird to order ice cream after breakfast. I was there to have fun after all. The ice cream that arrived a short while later in an old fashioned metal dish was my favorite part of the meal. The sweet yellow buttery scoops interspersed with crunchy bits of toffee was simple as ice cream goes, but the flavor was solid. Butter and sugar are the basis of literally every delicious baked good, so why shouldn’t there be an ice cream flavor based entirely around the combination? It was the perfect blend of whimsical, old fashioned, and excessive that I associate with the Friendly’s brand, but just as I was finishing scoop one and moving onto the second, I heard two members of the staff discussing the recent death of their former longtime manager. The spectre of doom and gloom had nearly caught up to me once again. 

This is what fun looks like. 

I had managed to find a little bit of joy in the new, austere Friendly’s menu, toned down by a pair of bankruptcies that came amid the deaths of their founders whose longevity was all the more remarkable given how much time they likely spent making, and eating ice cream. The over the top menu items were gone. The ice cream flavor list was shortened. My drive time to the nearest location had increased by a factor of six thanks to widespread closures, but there was still fun to be had. The flavor and texture of the ice cream was just enough to drown out the depressing conversation I was overhearing, and I still managed to leave in a noticeably better mood than when I had arrived. I think that’s the magic of Friendly’s. Even in its diminished state on an unseasonably cold and gloomy day at what I hope is the tail end of a cold and gloomy era with reminders of inevitable death lurking around every corner, a decent breakfast and couple scoops of ice cream brought to my table by a server whose demeanor lived up to the name of the establishment were enough to elevate my mood. Having been founded in the Great Depression, Friendly’s was born into the darkness and shaped by it, and just as they managed to cheer up the down and out Massholes that darkened their doorway in those early desperate days, they had done the same for me, a bucktoothed Kentucky hillbilly transplanted to the stagnant potholes of Michigan. Perhaps thanks to their roots in the depression, they’ve seemingly weathered the various storms better than their direct competitors. 

Sound medical advice.  

The similarly Massachusetts-born Howard Johnson restaurant brand barely still exists, with only one sporadically open restaurant location still using the name, but bearing little resemblance to what most would associate with the HoJo brand. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, a similar outfit that operated mostly on the west coast closed their last location a couple of years ago. If there’s a restaurant and ice cream parlor poised to defy death for an implausibly long time just as their founders did, it’s Friendly’s, and they’ll probably have fun doing it. After all, the feeling we call fun, at its core, is little more than a fleeting distraction from the fact that we are all going to die someday. We might as well enjoy a hearty meal, perhaps with a silly name, and some ice cream in a whimsically styled building while we wait out the inevitable. 





3 comments:

  1. As far as the whimsy of Friendly's, I'm glad that it still looks like they have the Cone Head sundae on the kid's menu, which I remember fondly getting as a kid. It was a vanilla sundae made to look like a clown with an ice cream cone hat and candy eyes and nose. They also have a monster character one. Just glancing at the menu on their site, it seems very Dennysesque now, although Denny's will always win the funny name contest with Moons Over My Hammy.

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  2. Chill! Bucktoothed? Hillbilly? Bald spot?

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  3. When I was a kid, whenever we visited Cedar Point as a family, we always stopped at the Friendly’s on Rt. 250 and got ice cream or Fribbles right after leaving the park. Obviously that location is long gone. Pretty sure I know the location you referred to in Maumee!

    Last time I ate at a Friendly’s was a mall location in New York. It wasn’t very busy but there was only one server and everything took forever. I hope I get to hit one up again sometime once I can travel again, and I would be thrilled if they brought back Hawaiian Punch Sherbet.

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