ENFIELD, Conn. — S. Prestley Blake had one rule as he walked into his local Friendly’s.
“Don’t tell anyone who we are,” he grumbled. “It’s a pain in the butt.”
I wasn’t about to quibble with my elders, especially when one of them is 99-year-old Blake, who started the ice cream chain with his younger brother Curtis with a shop in Springfield in 1935.
Last we heard from Prestley Blake it was 2007, and the last place he could be found was at a Friendly’s. He was unhappy with how the new owner was treating his “baby,” which had become a ragtag collection of dirty restaurants with poorly trained staff and bland food.
To force change, Blake had snatched up Friendly’s stock to become the company’s single largest shareholder and waged what became an $11 million, seven-year war to oust then-chief executive Donald Smith.
The cranky old guy won.
Friendly’s Ice Cream, now owned by private equity firm Sun Capital Partners, has been cleaning up its act with renovated stores and a revamped menu under chief executive John Maguire, a Weymouth native who learned the food business as a honcho at Panera Bread.
Sales may be finally improving, but does the chain pass the Prestley Blake test?
To find out, I invited Blake and his 82-year-old wife, Helen, to join me for lunch at a Friendly’s in Connecticut, not far from Springfield. The Blakes, who split time between the nearby town of Somers and Florida, make it out to a Friendly’s restaurant about a half-dozen times a year. Prestley Blake, who is known as Pres, sold all his stock in Friendly’s, so these days he’s just a customer.
As we sat down, it was hard for Blake to go unnoticed. Look down, and there he was on the front of the menu in a black-and-white photo with his brother. Look up, and he was on the walls in poster-size images capturing the early days of the business. The new décor is part of the chain’s efforts to remind customers that Friendly’s isn’t some idea hatched by Wall Street to make money.
First our waitress, then the manager recognized Blake immediately.
“My dream came true today,” gushed manager Neerab Shrestha, who earlier this year met the other cofounder and little brother Curtis, who eats at Friendly’s twice a month. He’s a spry 97.
The Blake brothers sold the chain in 1979 for $162 million, and even though they aren’t shareholders anymore, the company treats them like the cherry on top of a Jim Dandy sundae. They are special guests at employee events at the Wilbraham headquarters, and Maguire leans on them for advice.
“It is a great gift to me,” said Maguire, 48, of having the company’s founders still around. “These guys were such icons in the industry.”
On our lunch date last month, the restaurant was busy with families seeking ice cold treats on a hot summer day. Blake ordered a coffee Fribble and a burger. His absolute favorite meal — which is no longer on the menu — was the original Set Up, a square hamburger patty that sits between two grilled slices of bread. Gone is the square patty, but occasionally, he’ll ask to have a regular burger served on sliced bread instead of a bun.
Sipping his Fribble through a straw, Blake looked completely satisfied, like every other kid there, transported by the sugary high of the chain’s signature milkshake.
Is it possible that at last the ever-so prickly Prestley Blake approves?
“It has got good management now and keeps the standards up,” Blake said.
As for the service, it was hard to say if it was better, because when you’re eating with ice cream royalty, well, you get the royal treatment.
Curtis Blake also likes the new Friendly’s, calling Maguire one of the best chief executives the chain has had. But little brother wasn’t nearly as upset as Pres about the old management team. In fact, Curtis had begged his brother to end all the fighting with a company they long ago sold.
“Don Smith was a good CEO. The mistake Don Smith made — he should have treated Pres better,” said Curtis Blake, in a phone interview from his summer home in Maine.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Curtis and Pres are as different as vanilla and chocolate, not unlike the Market Basket Demoulases, Arthur T. and Arthur S. Curtis possessed the common touch, while Pres mercilessly watched the bottom line.
“My mom used to say if Pres owned the business alone, he wouldn’t have any employees,” Curtis recalled. “If I owned the business alone, I would give it all away to the employees.”
What they shared was a passion for ice cream — selling it and eating it. Maybe that’s the secret to long life.
Both Pres and Curtis eat a scoop just about every day. Pres’s favorite flavors are chocolate and coffee; Curtis is partial to Friendly’s Forbidden Chocolate. Coffee was also mom’s favorite. Ethel Blake lived to age 97.
Pres’s freezer is always stocked with at least four or five cartons – only Friendly’s, of course. This summer he and wife Helen have been enjoying mango, coconut, and watermelon sherbet. Plus, vanilla and coffee are always on hand.
Curtis is agnostic. “I love ice cream so much I’ll try anybody’s junk,” he told me.
Pres turns 100 in November, and he’s busy. He’s finishing an update to his 2011 autobiography, “A Friendly Life.” He also celebrates each big birthday with an ambitious project. This year it’s a mansion, a $6.5 million replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that he’s building on a plot a few doors down from his home in Somers. Pres spends several hours every day at the site overseeing construction.
The house is slated to be done the end of September. The plan was never to live there himself but to sell it. “I want to have a good neighbor,” he said.
Looks like Friendly’s and Pres Blake will get a Happy Ending after all.