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Friendly's Goes Fast Casual
The full-service chain is jumping on the fast-casual bandwagon with the introduction of its Friendly’s Express units.
A Friendly's Express restaurant.

Friendly's made the grand leap to quick-service last week when it introduced Mansfield, Massachusetts, consumers to the new Friendly's Express. What distinguishes Friendly's Express from its 74-year-old predecessor? Not a whole lot. Except, of course, everything is faster.

The Friendly's Express fast-casual concept aspires to combine the best of both dining experiences. Patrons enjoy an abbreviated menu with many of the eats and treats the family chain is known for. Its trademarked Supermelt Sandwiches, Big Beef Burgers, and signature ice creams, for instance, weren't compromised during the transition. But service time is significantly shorter.

In fact, Friendly's vice president of franchising and development, Jim Sullivan, says the Express Kitchen, though aesthetically similar to the original, was custom designed to expedite food preparation.

"We looked at the flow and functionality of our kitchens and enhanced productivity, he says. "We introduced front-loading chain boilers and went to flat stations." The changes mean there’s only a six to eight minute wait time from point of order to service.

"Consumers don't necessarily have 45 minutes to commit to dining," Sullivan says. "This concept allows our customers to enjoy great food in a short time period that fits their busy lifestyles."

Scaled down to a seating capacity of 42 indoor seats and 32 patio seats, the smaller format also allows the franchise to enter into tighter retail spaces in strip malls and places traditionally occupied by smaller operations.

"The concept works for our company because it allows us to expand rapidly into new real-estate formats, while offering franchisees a property with a lower start-up cost and shorter turn-around time." Sullivan says Friendly's executives spent a year talking to consumers and franchisees to hone the quick-service concept before launching Express.

While downsizing presents further opportunities to build the brand, Sullivan says ultimately the move to quick service was driven by consumer behavior.

"If you look at growth in the restaurant industry, the quick-service segment is experiencing the most." With Friendly's sales reportedly down, the drive to remain competitive in a down market is paramount.

Consumers don’t necessarily have
45 minutes to commit to dining.”

But Friendly’s isn’t the only brand tapping into quick serve’s popularity. This year pizza chain Uno launched its own version of a quick-service model, Uno Express, at college campuses.

"We've made it our business to make the Uno dining experience as convenient to our guest as possible," says Rick Hendrie, senior vice president of marketing for Uno. "With pizza as our foundation, we saw a tremendous opportunity to expand our brand among a greater pool of consumers in a variety of locations that might not be suitable for a full-scale restaurant."

Like Friendly's Express, the Uno model preserves much of its core characteristics while emphasizing speedy service and food portability. The company has since opened more than 120 units in various venues nationwide, including airports and amusement parks.

As of now, there are no plans to take Friendly's Express national. Sullivan says the company is content to keep operations contained along the eastern seaboard. They anticipate another store opening this year, with an additional five due in 2010.

Lakiesha R. Carr is QSR's online exclusives reporter.