June 25, 2018

Friendly's pivot to quick-service dining model spurred by growing trend

HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper
HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper
A newly hired host greets customers as they navigate Friendly's fast-casual dining model in Manchester on Buckland Street.
Friendly’s Manchester location recently received a fresh coat of paint and parking and landscaping upgrades.

Friendly's is treating itself to a new express service model, transforming its popular restaurants in Manchester and Windsor Locks to accommodate a fast-casual dining experience.

The diner-style restaurant launched its fast-casual prototype June 8, allowing patrons to order over the counter — eliminating waiters and tipping in an effort to speed service and reduce a customer's bill by 20 percent. Friendly's officials say the new service answers the call from customers who want the ability to dictate the pace of their meal.

The change comes after several other steps Friendly's has taken in recent years to reinvent its business model following financial struggles and an increasingly competitive restaurant industry. It opened drive-thru restaurants in 2012, adopted an online ordering platform and recently began testing delivery service.

The Wilbraham, Mass.-based restaurant chain — with more than 9,000 employees and 240 restaurants in 14 states, including 19 in Connecticut — briefly closed its Manchester eatery for renovations before offering the new fast-casual service. The Windsor Locks restaurant is undergoing a similar remodeling ahead of its June 28 opening.

Under the new service, customers at the two locations place orders over the counter and are seated in a newly refurbished dining room. Guests at the Manchester location are receiving their food in less than five minutes, Friendly's Chief Operating Officer Dennis Pfaff said.

More than 92 percent of the menu, featuring sandwiches, burgers, breakfast foods and ice cream, was maintained during the transition. Some less popular items were axed, Pfaff said.

Friendly's CEO John Maguire says the new format will not lead to job cuts, but servers are transitioning to become hosts, cashiers or busers. Friendly's is also helping servers unwilling to work without tips find jobs at nearby locations.

The Manchester restaurant has hired 15 new workers, both part- and full-time employees, to serve as cashiers, food runners and hosts to provide the new service.

Meantime, the restaurant chain also implemented a new performance-based incentive program for employees to supplement lost tip wages. Managers, assistant managers and other Friendly's employees are eligible for the incremental pay, he said.

Industry impact

Friendly's is joining the likes of Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Boston Market and Moe's Southwest Grill, which popularized the fast-casual experience over the last decade without a waiting staff.

Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association (CRA), says the fast-casual model does not scare away many servers from the organization's swath of nearly 700 businesses.

Dolch, hired in April as the organization's leader for promoting, protecting and improving Connecticut's restaurant and hospitality industry, says this "growing phenomenon" means food-service workers will begin taking on new roles in an industry known to reinvent itself.

Restaurants are still refining their technology-driven services that may sprout new jobs in data collection to track sales and trends and improve scheduling, payments, invoicing and reward programs, among other benefits.

"I don't think they need to worry about losing business because people can go in and order from a screen," Dolch said, adding that customers are more concerned about food quality, service and restaurant atmosphere.

While table-side technology and express services replace certain tasks, he said smaller restaurants, especially family owned establishments, can still be competitive without these major investments as they will always offer a personalized experience with servers.

"I still think at the core restaurants are about the experience and there still needs to be some element of human connection," Dolch said. "There is something to be said about building a relationship with an owner, server or chef that will never go away."

Testing ground

Friendly's selected company-owned restaurants in Manchester and Windsor Locks for the fast-casual trial given their success in the chain's second biggest sales market — Greater Hartford. They also wanted to test the new system in Windsor Locks because of its drive-thru service, Maguire said.

Community members gathered at Friendly's Buckland Street location in Manchester on June 8 during a soft opening that showcased the newly fashioned space. The three-day renovation brought the building a new coat of teal paint, fresh landscaping, parking upgrades, new plasma menu screens and decals and an expanded waiting area.

On opening day, a newly hired host greeted customers through the entrance and helped them navigate the simple ordering format. Despite the major overhaul, Pfaff says the restaurant is still dishing out the classic Friendly's experience.

"I think the service has been fast and effective," he said looking over the revamped space. "Our regular customers have been wowed so far."

Friendly's officials say the fast-casual prototype also garnered promising feedback from customers during numerous local focus groups since it began researching the service more than three years ago.

The chain's owners, private investment firm Sun Capital Partners Inc., have also backed the new service providing significant capital for the project since Friendly's brass pitched the idea in March.

The investments come after Friendly's endured a number of closures and bankruptcy in recent years.

Citing a stale economy, rising costs and a changing customer base, Friendly's filed for bankruptcy protection and closed 63 stores in 2011.

In 2015, a New York-based investment group that owned four Friendly's restaurants in Connecticut also filed for bankruptcy, closing three of its locations and selling one back to the franchise.

Friendly's won't transform all of its 240 locations. If successful, Pfaff says select locations will be molded into the fast-casual model, while others maintain the classic diner-style service for guests who prefer to lounge.

"If this is an overwhelming success we will move forward with expanding this service system," Maguire said. "Hopefully we can win back some more people who may think they benefit from a service such as this."

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