Friendly’s Puts on its Sundae Best

0927_ExecPro-Maguire, John2 304As a Weymouth native, John Maguire spent a lot of time at Wilbraham-based Friendly’s restaurants while growing up.

“It’s where I hung out with pals,” Maguire said. “There are so many great memories of the brand. It’s an institution.”

Now a little over a year into his tenure as CEO of Friendly’s, Maguire has been tasked with bringing the chain back to its once-iconic status. Friendly’s has had a tough go of it in the 21st century. About 100 restaurants have been shuttered since the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2011, and the chain now has 380 locations. A 2012 Consumer Reports survey showed Friendly’s received poor marks in cleanliness and customer service.

But the company’s emergence from bankruptcy in early 2012 presented it with an opportunity for a new start. And as part of that reboot, Maguire was brought on to lead the chain in April that year. Maguire, 47, left his post as chief operating officer at Panera Bread for the opportunity. He had been with Panera for 19 years — and his experience there has informed his early days in the effort to turn Friendly’s around.

“I wasn’t planning on leaving Panera,” Maguire said. “What intrigued me about Friendly’s was that I watched it decline firsthand. … I asked myself, ‘Should Friendly’s continue to exist?’ I started doing research on the brand … and decided there’s no reason it shouldn’t exist.”

Panera spent the 2000s moving in the opposite direction of Friendly’s. Its growth — the chain now boasts more than 1,600 restaurants and has added 500 since the financial crisis — can largely be attributed to Maguire, Panera executive vice chairman Bill Moreton said. “John has a core understanding of both customers and employees,” Moreston said. “He knows that the best way to serve a customer’s needs is by helping associates understand what associates do.”

That appears to be Maguire’s modus operandi at Friendly’s. The company’s top current initiative, he said, is to improve customer service, in part with a new employee training program. “We’ve hired people in the past who haven’t been so friendly,” Maguire said. “We set a higher standard than most brands (for service) with the name on our sign.”

Before Panera, Maguire worked for Wonderbread and Bread & Circus supermarkets. Those manufacturing and retail experiences have also informed his early days at Friendly’s, whose retail ice cream products have thrived while the restaurants have declined. Friendly’s ice cream is now sold in more than 8,000 grocery stores nationwide and has seen a 20 percent year-over-year sales increase in the last two years, Maguire said.

Maguire said 70 percent of Friendly’s customers order dessert, compared to just 6 percent at restaurants nationwide. “You’ve got to make sure people clearly understand what differentiates us,” he said.

Meanwhile, the company has brought more focus to the rest of its menu. Since joining the company, Friendly’s has dropped several items, such as quesadillas, steak tips and stir fry. Instead, the chain is working to improve on the quality of its classic offerings. For instance, it has begun making the Fishamajig with haddock rather than pollock.

Friendly’s is also remodeling its restaurants as part of the effort to address past complaints about cleanliness. The company has remodeled 40 of its restaurants, will remodel 10 more before the end of the year, and will eventually bring a facelift to all of its locations nationwide.

Restaurant consultancy Technomic said consumers have approved of the changes so far. Customer satisfaction at Friendly’s spiked in the fourth quarter of 2012, though it has tempered since. Technomic analyst Darren Tristano compared the Friendly’s comeback attempt to Little Caesars’. In the early 2000s, the pizza chain began expanding again after introducing higher quality ingredients and remodeling its restaurants.

Maguire said total revenue at Friendly’s grew in 2012 and is projected to grow again in 2013. Meanwhile, Maguire said, there are plans to open at least two new restaurants in Eastern Massachusetts — the company’s strongest market — in 2014.

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