Its decline started a long time ago, about 1989, when “Friendly Ice Cream Shops” added a seemingly innocuous “‘s” to “Friendly”, its original name. It may seem like a little thing, but that was really the beginning of a long steady tumble downward to its current incarnation: “Friendly’s: Home of the High! Five.”
Still, it stung me hard last week when I read that Friendly’s has filed for bankruptcy and will be closing hundreds of its shops, several in the town where I grew up.
Some of my favorite, sweetest memories of time spent with my Dad are the evenings we spent together in the late ’50s and early ’60s having supper at our neighborhood Friendly. Starting when I was a skinny, pig-tailed six year-old and continuing until my pre-teens when I became too cool to be seen with Dad, we went out about once a week to our dependable place around the corner.
The drill went like this. My mother would declare that she was too tired or too busy to cook and suggest that maybe Dad and I could go to Friendly. We always jumped at the chance. Dad would drive us there in his never-more than-a-year-old Oldsmobile ( in accordance with his “keep up the trade-in value” policy), both of us happy to be out for the night together.
The routine was familiar, and comforting in its dependability. With it red brick facade and wide plate glass front windows, before you entered you had a full view of the pleasant, orderly, even homey room inside. We would to choose an empty booth, sit down and wait briefly for a waitress, never doubting that she would be right along to greet us with a pleasant “Good evening.” It’s hard to imagine, but in those days, the waitresses actually smiled.
Our waitress would be dressed in her clean, wrinkle-free Friendly uniform: grey short-sleeved blouse with a fancy white lace collar, a headband or hairnet to secure any stray locks of hair, and a grey skirt which would be hidden by a white half-apron tied over it. It was hard to see the shoes from where I sat, but I imagined they were sensible white or gray ones, with laces. Silk stockings were a given. Once in a while a stray male employee would amble over to be our server for the night. Uniformed in a white shirt, bow tie, and white pants (see photo above), he would always look a little bit uncomfortable taking our order or serving the meal, as if maybe this was women’s work.
The first order of business after the greeting was always the same. My dad would inquire politely, as was his way, about the soup of the day. His favorite was split pea with ham, but no matter what was on offer, he would order a cup (never a bowl.) I would order a cup also, whether I wanted it or not, just to keep him company and to keep our order the same.
Next Dad would order our main course: “2 Big Beefs, rare please, with onion.” In those days, the Big Beef was a square-shaped patty of what seemed to me to be the epitome of fine beef, and it was served on white toast (no choice of bread). With no corporate fear of Salmonella and resulting lawsuits,The Big Beefs would arrive thick and juicy-rare, as ordered, the blood seeping into the bottom slice of toast . The onion would be white, thick and crunchy: you knew it had been sliced fresh. (No choice of sauteed.) Pickle chips would be served on the side. We would order a side dish of french fries for me, and when they arrived at the table, all five or six of them, you never had to ask the waitress to bring the ketchup: she would just pull the bottle of Heinz out of her handy apron pocket. I’d always offer Dad a fry or two.
This simplicity of ordering left plenty of time for Dad and I to talk. Once in a while we would order dessert: a single or double scoop of chocolate ice cream for each of us. Served in a small pewter-colored dish, it was just enough to be satisfying. We never had room for a hot fudge sundae, but I used to notice that there were three flavors offered (vanilla, chocolate and of course strawberry) with hot fudge and whipped cream, both real, not “toppings”.
Contrast this with today’s “Friendly’s: Home of the High! 5”. Now, instead of just ambling in to Friendly with a friend or two for some relaxation and fun conversation, you are obstructed as you enter by a metal, always-unwelcome “Welcome” sign instructing you to “Wait for Hostess to Seat You.” Your expectant, happy gait halted, you are now forced to stand obediently and wait. With your expectation of a relaxing time plummeting and your blood pressure rising, you survey the room searching for someone, anyone within the employ of the Home of the High! Five to seat you. Time standing still, you spot several empty booths but still no hostess . Should you sit down at one of the empty booths and disregard the sign? Just the first of the many choices, all of them unhappy, you will have to make. Sound familiar?
After you sit down, you wait. And wait. Eventually, a harried, rather messy- looking sort arrives at your booth, sometimes out of breath. If you are greeted at all, it is with the loathsome “Hi Guys!” (Can we start a national movement, maybe joining the Wall Street Protesters, against this revolting phrase?) Should you choose the Big Beef, which now comes on a bun instead of toast, you might also choose fries: “Loaded Waffle Fries” to be exact. In contrast to the five crispy fries of my youth, these come “topped with melted cheddar cheese sauce, bacon, and sour cream, served with delicious ranch dressing on the side”. In other words, heart attack in a dish. The coup de graçe comes when you are about half-way through your meal and your server appears and inquires sweetly (now that tip time is near), “all done, or are ya’ still workin’ on it?” ( Can we add this allusion to a cow chewing its cud to our list of protest subjects?) If you are still breathing after your Loaded Waffle Fries, you may now order a “Happy Ending Sundae”. This behemoth consists of up to 5 scoops of ice cream, and you are able to choose from a selection of “toppings” : perhaps marshmallow and/or peanut butter, finished with, you guessed it, whipped “topping”.
So farewell, Friendly, and thanks for the memories. I won’t be patronizing “Friendly’s, the home of the “High 5! ” anytime soon.