In just the past few years the Friendly’s food chain has run through several chief executives, gone in and out of bankruptcy, closed more than 100 stores, and still struggled with its dated concept of family dining.
So when the Wilbraham chain sought out a new leader, it looked to the company that has become a leader in the fast-casual food business - Panera Bread Co.
But its new chief executive, Panera chief operating officer John Maguire, has a surprise in store: He does not intend to turn Friendly’s Ice Cream LLC into a copycat bakery-cafe, but hopes to revive the recipe that made the ice cream parlors such a successful chain once upon a time.
“I think the challenge for us to find a way to bring Friendly’s closer back to that iconic restaurant that it used to be,’’ Maguire said. “Obviously it’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m extremely excited.’’
A Massachusetts native, the 46-year-old executive grew up in Weymouth. His local Friendly’s was just a quarter of a mile away, and he knows his way through the menu. His favorites? Patty melt, french fries, and a chocolate Fribble.
“When I think about times I spent with my parents and grandparents, a lot of those revolved around Friendly’s,’’ he said. “This opportunity means a lot to me to go to a place with such history.’’
Maguire comes to Friendly’s after 19 years at Panera, working his way up the company ranks from managing restaurants and other operations to most recently serving as executive vice president.
“You have somebody who is good in the turn-around and is very good in moving organizations forward,’’ said his soon-to-be former boss, Panera founder Ron Shaich. “He is a natural leader and he’s somebody who has a great deal of intensity around both doing the right thing and acting.’’
With its fresh-baked goods and stylish interiors with warm tones, Panera has vaulted to the top of the “fast casual’’ restaurant category, second only to Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., according to market research company NPD Group. Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of restaurant consultant WD Partners, said Maguire would do well to broaden Friendly’s appeal and attract the wide customer base Panera has built.
“You have someone coming from one of the best-regarded chains and one that really works well with a lot of age groups, which is something Friendly’s needs,’’ Lombardi said.
But Lombardi said Friendly’s has a long way to go to be relevant in the current market. “It’s got a great historic background, but that only takes you so far,’’ he said. “There needs to be a different customer experience in terms of the atmosphere, menu offerings, and certainly the service experience.’’
Friendly’s has had two chief executives in under four years: Harsha V. Agadi, who resigned in February after being with the company just 18 months; and Ned R. Lidvall, who also lasted less than two years.
Maguire said such frequent management changes have caused Friendly’s to lose its way.
“With each management change, there’s a new culture and new ideas to try,’’ he said. “In some ways it tried to be fast casual and chased concepts like Panera, but they lost what really is their identity.’’
His recommendation for fixing Friendly’s doesn’t seem all that remarkable. Maguire said the Friendly’s identity needs to revolve around breakfast, hamburgers, and ice cream at a value for families.
The chain can thrive, he said, if the company can find a way to bring Friendly’s closer to its roots.
What he will borrow from Panera, Maguire said, is the company’s focus on making the customer experience enjoyable.
“My biggest focus at Panera was on the quality of people that work there and experience they give the customer,’’ he said. “Whether its fast-casual or family dining, the basic fundamentals of running a good restaurant are still the same.’’