Like many town residents, I was saddened to read that Friendly’s in West Hartford was shutting its door. Also like many town residents, I never really ate at Friendly’s in West Hartford. I’d imagine that was the problem. Fixing that problem, as seen with all the comments from the recent Patch posting, seems to be a town-wide discussion.
Now that Friendly’s has declared bankruptcy, there is probably a lot of soul searching within the company. How can they perform a makeover and reestablish their success? It happens all the time. Steve Jobs seems to be on everyone’s mind, so think about Apple. The company was able, with the help of a visionary like Jobs (who was brought back to the company after being kicked out), to turn their image from a fading dinosaur to technology’s bellwether. More recently, Starbucks has been having a relatively successful shift in strategy.
Most businesses struggle to gain name recognition, but that obviously wasn’t the problem with Friendly’s. Everyone in New England knows of Friendly’s. In addition, Friendly’s seems to have positive name recognition. Contrast this with the financial problems of Blockbuster a few years ago. Most people weren’t sad to hear about their financial troubles because many people felt Blockbuster had an unfair late return policy (which they were sued over). What association do you have when you think of Friendly’s? I think of childhood, diner-like seating, modest prices, and ice cream. I’ll guess that a lot of people strongly associate Friendly’s with their ice cream.
That would seem like a great association to have. We all scream for ice cream. However, think about how much has changed with ice cream over the last 10 years. It is much more gourmet now with unusual flavors and mix-ins. Starbucks dramatically altered what Americans thought of coffee, and dramatically altered the way we think about ice cream. To add insult to injury, the very week Friendly’s was closing was the week was opening in Blue Back to an enthusiastic crowd. The business world is in a state of constant change and I wonder if Friendly’s just wasn’t adapting. I do, however, think they have great potential to come back and be successful.
In order for Friendly’s to be successful in the future they’re going to have to take their large and mostly positive name recognition and turn it into eating customers. It would seem like Friendly’s would have been well positioned in West Hartford. We’re blessed with an amazing array of high-quality restaurants in town, but we also have very few low to moderately priced options downtown. This might be one reason for the explosion in burger joints in town. People want fast, easy, and cheap. I certainly seek that out. But people like me still didn’t flock to Friendly’s. Why?
I think the problem (which could also be turned into a positive) with Friendly’s is that they are viewed as somewhat of a time capsule. Everyone knows who they are and that they have ice cream. While their grocery store line of ice cream does well, I wonder how much their in-store is hurt by the rise of gourmet ice cream like Ben & Jerry’s. If they want to build on the time capsule feel, they could look at the success of places like Johnny Rockets. What’s funny about restaurants like Johnny Rockets is they can give you a nostalgic feel while also serving modern taste buds. (I don’t believe they had veggie burgers in the fifties.) It might be a good idea to move their advertising focus away from the ice cream and instead focus on new and improved menu options. People are hungry for moderately priced food, and they gravitate towards restaurants that can mimic a bygone era, so I’d say Friendly’s has a great opportunity.
What do you think?