In a recent television commercial, upbeat chief executive John Maguire tells viewers that Friendly’s Ice Cream is “back” and urges customers to give the restaurants another shot. He even promises to tear up the bill if they leave disappointed.
The 30-second pitch is among the latest attempts to turn the Wilbraham-based chain around after emerging from bankruptcy in early 2012.
It was once a staple for New England families, but many long-time customers abandoned Friendly’s and its signature SuperMelt sandwiches and Fribble milkshakes as complaints about dirty interiors and poor service mounted. Annual sales dropped nearly 30 percent to $407 million from 2011 through 2013, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. Friendly’s was the lowest-rated family restaurant in a Consumer Reports survey of 48,000 diners released two years ago.
“The truth about Friendly’s is that we just weren’t that friendly, our food was mediocre, and our restaurants were dirty or just not that well kept,” Maguire said in a recent interview.
He took the reins of the struggling company in 2012, fresh off a stint as chief operating officer of Panera Bread Co., and armed himself with a plan to return Friendly’s to its former glory.
Now, he says the plan is starting to work, at least in greater Boston.
Sales at local restaurants picked up 9.1 percent during the six weeks the first marketing campaign aired this spring and again as a second campaign hit television screens in June, compared to the same periods a year ago, Maguire said. Transactions were also up 4 percent.
“This has been the strongest sales period that Friendly’s has enjoyed in the Boston area in several years,” Maguire said. “The results we’re seeing in Boston are markedly improved from what we’ve seen in the past.”
Maguire is testing his strategy — dubbed “Project Beantown” — in the company’s best-selling Boston market before expanding to other regions.
Maguire said the company is hiring better employees now — people who are actually friendly — and launched a new training program. He changed the menu and improved the quality of the food, returning to ingredients such as haddock in the Fishamajig sandwich and extra large eggs that had been previously replaced with cheaper options to save money.
All 33 corporate-owned restaurants in the Boston market have been renovated. The company replaced dated decor with retro diner-style interiors featuring a red, white, gray, and black color scheme. Booths, high-top tables, and chairs were refurbished, and black-and-white historical photographs now hang from the walls. The company wants the remaining 10 franchise stores in the Boston market remodeled by the end of 2016.
The marketing campaign, carried out through television, print, and radio advertisements, gives Friendly’s a chance to shape a narrative around the company’s comeback.
“The commercials allow us to talk to a lot of people quickly and succinctly,” Maguire said.
“It says we’re here, we’re back, and we’re better than ever. Come give us a try.”
But some outside observers question whether the claim is entirely true.
Christopher Muller, a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, said that it’s risky to tell customers the stores have changed when some franchise locations remain the same.
“Revitalizing a legacy brand is very possible, but you want to make sure everything is perfect before you start,” Muller said. “When you announce that things have changed and you drive people back for a retrial or a new trial, you better make sure that it lives up to the promises. Customers only give you one chance.”
The franchisee-owned Wollaston restaurant, for example, has not been remodeled. On a recent afternoon, sticky ice cream spots splattered some of the menus and the glass door was covered with smudges. Some tables went uncleared for 30 minutes after patrons left.
One customer walked toward the kitchen and loudly complained that he ordered a half hour earlier and still hadn’t received his meal. He said it wasn’t the first time, either.
“At this restaurant the service can be extremely slow,” said another patron, Emily Foley of Quincy.
Customers were more positive at the recently remodeled and much cleaner Watertown restaurant.
“The service is definitely improving and the food quality is better,” said Lea Roy of Newton, who frequents the restaurant three times a month with her 3-year-old daughter. Roy was impressed with the new healthier options, such as the All White Meat Turkey Burger.
Sarah Lockyer, the editor-in-chief of the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News, agree that the promotional campaign was risky, but thought it was the right move.
“Any restaurant chain that is facing a pretty stagnant consumer and a pretty tough segment like family dining is going to have to make bold moves,” she said. “I’m impressed. That’s a brave tactic.”
She compared the Friendly’s commercial to the Domino’s Pizza turnaround. Customers and sales responded when the chain changed its pizza recipe and ran an honest ad campaign that criticized its former product, she said.
Muller and Lockyer agreed that a slight increase in the Boston business at Friendly’s wasn’t surprising. “When you’re at the bottom, there’s no way to go but up,” Muller said.
Friendly’s still has a long way to go and faces tough challenges in the family dining industry.
The chain competes against fast food restaurants that serve a greater number of customers and fast-casual restaurants that offer quality food with lower labor costs. It also has an image as “your grandfather’s restaurant” and struggles to remain relevant to today’s consumer, Muller said.
“It may be too late for Friendly’s,” he said. “It’s a very tough business model and the industry has moved away from them.”
Maguire doesn’t think so. He called the Friendly’s revival a continuous process, a task to be approached day by day.
“Are we better today than we were yesterday? Do we believe we will be better tomorrow than we are today?” he asked. “To that, I can answer emphatically, Yes.”