Friday, October 14, 2011

Tough times for Friendly's.

I was saddened to read last week that Friendly Ice Cream Corporation has filed for filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Since its founding in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935, Friendly's has grown from a single small ice cream shop to a chain of several hundred sit-down restaurants offering trademark sandwiches like the Fishamajig and Big Beef hamburgers and unique ice cream specialties like the Fribble, the Cone Head Sundae, and the summer-only Wattamelon Roll. Though Friendly's restaurants may be found up and down the East Coast and as far west as Ohio, the chain has long enjoyed a special place in the culinary culture of Massachusetts: Friendly's is a place that many Bay State natives (myself included) frequented growing up, a place blessed by its association with positive childhood memories of childhood. The idea that Friendly's may soon cease to exist - or might simply be changed beyond recognition through corporate restructuring - fills me with sorrow and dread.

Yesterday's edition of the Boston Globe carried an article in which various marketing and restaurant industry professionals offered "some Friendly advice" on how the venerable chain could emerge from bankruptcy in better shape. All of the pros more or less suggested that Friendly's should dramatically reinvent itself: two advised cutting out meals and focusing on ice cream, another proposed moving to a "fast business casual" model (which apparently necessitates higher prices - I guess that more expensive food is meant to project a certain kind of image), while a fourth proposed turning Friendly's into a sort of glorified Starbucks with ice cream. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don't care for any of those ideas: I want Friendly's to stay as it is.

Though they offered different prescriptions, each of the Globe's interviewees spoke of Friendly's in the same glib and condescending terms. One suggests that restaurants like Friendly's offered "great concepts during the day. But our lives have changed." Another airily dismisses Friendly's longtime business model: "That parade has passed." The third - and harshest - assessment is this: "Average is over. For a time, average is what Americans wanted. The Gap. Chevrolet. Friendly's. Average is totally over. Make Friendly's fresh and fun instead of tired, boring, predictable, and dirty with food that stinks."

As a person who generally doesn't care much about what's new, fresh, or trendy, I'll admit that I'm probably a marketing professional's nightmare. At any rate, the sort of shtick that one finds in articles like the one cited above tends to imply that opinions like mine don't matter - which naturally makes me less than receptive to suggestions that organizations need to constantly reinvent themselves to stay 'current' or 'relevant.' To try to express my objection in more charitable terms, I would say that arguments for change and innovation are value-laden: they tend to presume that innovation is a positive good, but they seldom stop to articulate the values that underlie this presumption or seek to defend them.

The point that I'm trying to make here goes beyond the fate of Friendly's. The same problem appears in many other contexts, including religious ones. Some use "open to the Spirit" as a synonym for "open to change," as if the Holy Spirit would never favor keeping anything as it is. Of course, all of us in the Church are called to ongoing conversion, to a continual work of spiritual renewal; to paraphrase a comment attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and cited recently by Pope Benedict XVI, the first thing that needs to change in the Church is you and me. None of us is exempt from the difficult task of self-examination, of asking how we must die to ourselves on a deep, interior level in order to be more faithful to the Gospel and to the tradition that has been entrusted to us. As a part of this process, we must recognize that, in a world of constant change, some things are worth clinging to and preserving - some things are, in fact, timeless: O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new...

The above paragraph may seem a bit tangential; I'm somewhat surprised to have wandered from Friendly's to Saint Augustine ("ever ancient, every new") in a single post, but I suppose that such moves come with the territory when one is committed to finding God in all things. On the religious or theological side of things, there are ideas here that perhaps should be presented in greater detail, but that's a task for another time. I certainly would not attribute anything like timelessness to Friendly's, but I do think that this venerable restaurant chain is worth preserving in something like its present form. Though I'm not optimistic, I hope that the Friendly's I know and love will endure. AMDG.


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