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At 75th birthday, Friendly's looks to its future

Date: 7/26/2010

July 26, 2010

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM -- Looking forward was as much of a theme as honoring the past at Friendly's Ice Cream Corporation's 75th anniversary celebration at the company's headquarters on July 19.

With 95-year-old co-founder S. Prestley Blake in attendance, as well as employees from the corporate office and the manufacturing plant, Friendly's CEO Ned Lidvall took time to first recognize the past and current strength of the company.

"I believe that at 75 years, for a company of our size in the food service business, we are the oldest, longest lived company in our industry and that clearly puts us in rarified air in the industry," Lidvall said.

Blake's younger brother and co-founder Curtis Blake was scheduled to be in attendance, but weather conditions that prevented his plane from departing Maine, where he now makes his home.

Lidvall admitted the recent economic times had hit the restaurant industry hard and projected that part of the economy might be one of the last to be truly revived. He spoke confidently with Reminder Publications about the company's future.

"These are challenging times in our industry, but we believe that we're well positioned in the restaurant landscape," Lidvall said.

The company's specific niche in the market was and will continue to be the key to the success of the Friendly's Corporation, Lidvall noted.

"Somewhere around 75 percent of the occasions that we serve in our restaurant are families with kids," Lidvall explained. "And the best way to get kids to come to restaurants is ice cream and so we do that better than anybody. So we think that our unique position, which was unique when Pres and Curt founded the company, still is today."

While sticking to the basic principles with which the Blakes started the company, Lidvall said the company's ability to innovate and keep up with the times has helped Friendly's staying power.

"As long as we continue to stay relevant with our menu and execute better and better, we'll be around for another 75 years," Lidvall said.

Lidvall stressed that turning to serving liquor was not one of the ways Friendly's is looking to stay relevant, pointing out the Friendly's Corporation has tried beer and wine in the past, and found it did not increase the amount of clientele.

"Family dining, which largely is defined as full service without beverage alcohol, is still a very large segment of the population," Lidvall said. "There are a lot of people that chose to eat away from home and not have an alcoholic beverage, so we don't believe that that is a deterrent."

"Additionally, [serving liquor] is a very crowded position today and a lot of those companies are struggling to find a unique value proposition and a way to differentiate themselves in the market."

Blake was 20 when he and his 18-year-old brother opened a restaurant serving five-cent ice cream cones, a venture that their mother thought would be a "good summertime job," according to Blake.

"Today, 18 and 20 years-olds don't know much and we didn't, either," Blake said.

The restaurant took in $27.60 on its first day, selling 552 ice cream cones. Blake took time to marvel at how far the company had come over the years, now boasting more than 500 stores.

"We had as many as 850 stores at one point," Blake said.

In his remarks to the people in attendance, Blake also expressed his confidence that the company would continue to see success in the future.

"I wish Ned Lidvall the best possible success in making the company's next 75 years prosperous and truly a gem for the company," Blake said.