Friendly's To Test Fast Casual Concept

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Friendly's Ice Cream Corp. is throwing its hat into the increasingly competitive fast-casual ring.

The chain will test up to four Friendly's Express restaurants in Boston, Springfield, Mass., and Providence, R.I. next year, and hopes to begin opening as many as 50 of the fast-casual formats each year within three to five years, according to Nation's Restaurant News.

The express units will offer the chain's core menu items, ordered at a service counter and then delivered to the table. The express restaurants will be about 2,200 square feet, versus the 3,500 square feet of a standard Friendly's.

New president/CEO Ned R. Lidvall, formerly president/CEO of Rock Bottom Restaurants, compared the Friendly's express concept to that of Panera Bread.

Friendly's has also announced that it will introduce Green Mountain Coffee into more than 300 restaurants across 11 states this month.

The Wilbraham, Mass.-based, 73-year-old chain has more than 500 company-owned and franchise restaurants located throughout the Northeast and several southeastern states, and also manufactures ice cream sold in more than 4,000 supermarkets and other retailers.

Formerly on the NASDAQ and then the American Stock Exchange, the company was acquired last year by private equity firm Sun Capital Partners Inc. for $337 million.

Fast-casual continues to be the fastest-growing restaurant format, but the segment is becoming increasingly competitive, with both quick-service chains (including McDonald's) and full-service casual chains moving into the space.

How well is Friendly's positioned to enter the fray? "It's not just the increasing competition; it's also the difficult economy that will make this move challenging at this juncture," notes Bob Goldin, EVP of restaurant industry consulting group Technomic, Inc. "Friendly's existing operation is pretty tired, and it makes sense that they would look for growth through new concepts. "But they may be a bit late into the game, and I'm not sure what they'll be bringing to the party. One question is whether Friendly's, which is known as a coffee shop, will resonate in the fast-casual context."

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