Curtis Blake, who with his older brother built a single Massachusetts ice cream store into Friendly’s, a homey restaurant chain in the Eastern United States, died on May 24 at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 102.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Susan Blake.
Curtis and S. Prestley Blake opened Friendly (the chain became Friendly’s in 1989) with a $547 loan from their parents in their hometown, Springfield, Mass., in the summer of 1935. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the brothers enticed customers by selling two scoops of ice cream for a nickel, about half the price their competitors charged.
“Our customers didn’t have any money, and neither did we,” Mr. Blake told The Republican, a Springfield newspaper, in 2017.
Their shop was an instant success, with a line out the door on opening night. But it required constant labor.
“One of us was always working,” Mr. Blake, a longtime collector of classic cars, told the magazine Hemmings Classic Car in 2014. “We went back and forth; when we closed our first shop at midnight, one of us would stay at the store and start making ice cream for the next day, and the other went home and slept”
The Blake brothers complemented each other. Prestley was the chief executive, in charge of managing the business, while Curtis handled personnel, ice cream production and other aspects of their growing company.
“My mom used to say if Pres owned the business alone, he wouldn’t have any employees,” Mr. Blake told The Boston Globe in 2014. “If I owned the business alone, I would give it all away to the employees.”
In time the menu expanded to include specialties like the Fribble, a thick milkshake, as well as elaborate ice cream sundaes and savory fare like hamburgers, French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches. The brothers eventually expanded the business into hundreds of locations, competing with similar chains like Howard Johnson’s and Brigham’s, and Friendly’s ice cream appeared in the freezer aisles of many supermarkets.
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Mr. Blake and his brother sold Friendly to the Hershey Foods Corporation in 1979 for around $164 million (nearly $580 million in today’s dollars). The Tennessee Restaurant Company bought the chain from Hershey in 1988 and officially changed the name to Friendly’s the next year. Friendly’s is now owned by an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, a private equity firm that bought it for $337 million in 2007.
Friendly’s has struggled in recent years because of the 2008 recession, as well as changes in the restaurant industry and diners’ preferences. It filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011 and closed about a hundred stores.
John Maguire, a Massachusetts native and Panera Bread executive who became the chief executive in 2012, told The Boston Globe’s magazine the next year that part of his strategy for reviving Friendly’s was to emphasize nostalgia. Many of the remaining 171 Friendly’s restaurants now display photographs of the original store and pictures of the Blake brothers wearing bow ties, genial emblems of a bygone age. (Mr. Maguire stepped down in 2018, when George Michel, the former chief executive of Boston Market, took over.)
A customer might even have run into one of Friendly’s actual founders in a restaurant — Curtis Blake was especially fond of Friendly’s hamburgers and Forbidden Chocolate ice cream. The last time he dined at a Friendly’s was during the winter of 2017, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Curtis Livingston Blake was born on April 15, 1917, in Springfield, to Herbert Prestley and Ethel (Stewart) Blake. His father worked for the Standard Electric Time Company, which made electric clocks; his mother was a homemaker and car enthusiast who encouraged her sons’ lifelong interest in collecting classic automobiles.
Mr. Blake graduated from Technical High School and started Friendly with his brother before serving in the Army Air Forces in England during World War II.
He married Aileen MacFarland in 1942. They divorced in the early 1970s, and he married Patricia Harrington Ulcickas in 1974. The couple owned homes in West Hartford, Conn.; South Woodstock, Vt.; and Northeast Harbor, Me., in addition to their home in Florida.
In addition to his brother, who is 104, and his daughter, Mr. Blake is survived by a stepdaughter, Anne Garrymore; two stepsons, James and Joseph Ulcickas; 10 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a younger sister, Betsy Melvin. His wife died in 2018, and his son, C. Channing Blake, died in 1995.
Even though Mr. Blake was not involved in Friendly’s daily operations after 1979, he said in 2013 that he was proud that the brand he had helped start had endured.
“Brigham’s is gone,” he said. “Howard Johnson’s is gone. They’re all gone. There’s nobody as old as ours.”
Follow Daniel E. Slotnik on Twitter: @dslotnik
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