9 Things You Might Not Know About Friendly's

The ice cream chain celebrated its 80th birthday this year!


Curtis and S. Prestley Blake—who were just 18 and 20 years old at the time—opened Friendly Ice Cream in Springfield, Mass. in 1935. The brothers borrowed $547 from their parents for the shop, where they sold two-scoop cones at 5 cents apiece. The brothers' contrasting personalities later led to a brief falling out, but it was also their secret to success.

"My mom used to say if Pres owned the business alone, he wouldn’t have any employees," Curtis, then 97, told the Boston Globe in 2014. "If I owned the business alone, I would give it all away to the employees."


Their first shop only offered ice cream, but when they opened a second location in West Springfield five years later, food was added to the menu. The first savory offering: A square burger patty on toasted bread known as the Set Up. In the decades since, the original was replaced with a standard burger, but the Set Up remains the favorite of founder Pres Blake.


The brothers closed up shop for two years during World War II—but kept their locations, promising to reopen “when we win the war.”


Via Friendly's Facebook

The Blake brothers’ mom, Ethel, lived to be 97 years old. Her sons eat ice cream every day—both like chocolate, Pres also enjoys coffee—and both are still living 80 years after founding Friendly’s. Now well past retirement age, the brothers have stayed busy and active. Prestley celebrated his centennial birthday last year with a black-tie bash at his newly-completed $7.5 million replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And Curtis, now 99, funds a school for learning disabled children.


Via Friendly's Facebook

Even after they started franchising, the Blake brothers’ chain was called simply "Friendly." The possessive didn’t get added until the late 1980s, when Donald Smith, who had already brought his business savvy to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, bought the chain for $375 million and made the menu full-service along with changing the name ever so slightly.


Via Friendly's Facebook

The recipe for the original Friendly’s shake, which was distinct for using ice milk, was licensed from the Bond ice cream shop chain in New Jersey in the 1940s. There, legend has it, a customer tasted the frothy concoction and described it as “awful big and awful good”—inspiring the name Awful Awful. In the 1960s, Friendly’s started to expand into New Jersey, and needed a new name so as not to infringe on Bond’s territory, since the local chain owned the Awful Awful name. Friendly's held a naming contest and three customers who suggested “Fribble” received $100 each. In the mid-1990s, the Fribble recipe was changed to include soft serve ice cream and revamped again two years ago when Friendly’s switched to hard ice cream.


The switch from soft serve to hard ice cream in their famous Fribble was one of a whole slew of changes Friendly’s made in 2013 as the brand attempted to regain financial footing. In 2011, the ice cream chain had been forced to declare bankruptcy and close 100 locations. John M. Maguire, who had previously worked for Panera Bread, was hired to revamp the company with new décor, better music, bigger portion sizes, burgers cooked to order, and a reinvigorated focus on customer service. Many of the elements they incorporated in the new design and menu were inspired by the early days of Friendly’s.


The company celebrated its 78th birthday in 2013 by setting the Guinness World Record for the largest dessert party. The minimum amount of time to constitute a “party” is 15 minutes, so 794 guests sat down for a quarter-hour of ice cream eating at the Friendly's headquarters in Wilbraham, Mass., breaking the previous record of 740 people set the year before in Nebraska. Prestley Blake and his family were among the record-setting attendees, although his brother Curtis was not.


via Friendly's Facebook

The chain is still in the process of building back up their restaurant presence in the wake of filing for bankruptcy, but they do great business in the grocery store aisles. In 2014, Friendly’s produced over 52 million 48-ounce cartons of ice cream, covering 63 flavors. But, as you'd expect, vanilla is their most popular flavor.

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year

The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]


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