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Friendly's co-founder and inveterate gadfly Prestley Curtis dies

The chain-restaurant pioneer was 106.
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Prestley “Pres” Blake, co-founder of the Friendly’s family dining chain and an outspoken agnostic of industry conventions since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, has died. He was 106.

His family gave the cause of death as respiratory failure.

Blake was the elder of two brothers who found themselves unemployed along with about 30% of the nation during the Great Depression. Borrowing $547 from their mother, Pres and Curtis Blake used the loan to open an ice cream parlor in Springfield, Mass., in 1935.

The pair were aiming to pull customers away from pharmacy soda fountains, whose offer of low-priced ice cream treats continued to draw customers despite the unprecedented economic downturn. They promised two scoops of ice cream for the same nickel that drug store counters charged for a single scoop. They also touted their friendly service, aiming to underscore that distinction with the name of their venture, Friendly (the “’s” would not be added for several decades, and then by another owner who thought it sounded better.)

The venture took off. The brothers would later recount how they spent the nights manufacturing the ice cream, which they’d sell the next day in their shop cone by cone. Curtis Blake showed an aptitude for operations and customer relations. Pres was more interested in finance. The pair would continue in those roles, deciding who’d hold what formal titles via a coin toss, for decades.

They added burgers, sandwiches and other savory fare to maintain traffic through the winter as they opened more restaurants, mostly in New England. Their arch competition was the Howard Johnson chain, which similarly built on a foundation of ice cream treats.

The Blakes eventually sold their brainchild in 1970s to Hershey Foods for $164 million. Pres used his share to indulge himself in hobbies such as collecting Rolls-Royces. He also had a fascination with Thomas Jefferson, treating himself on his 100th birthday to a new $8 million home patterned after the Founding Father’s landmark Monticello plantation.

Through it all, Pres Blake kept an eye on Friendly’s. Hershey eventually sold the operation, at the time all company-operated, to chain builder Donald N. Smith, a former top-level executive for Burger King and Pizza Hut. Smith was looking to build an empire of family-dining chains, with the rival Perkins pancake chain also a part of his empire.

The elder Blake believed that Smith was focusing on Perkins at the expense of Friendly’s. He was also troubled by what he saw as extravagant spending by Smith, who used a private plane to shuttle between his home in Chicago, Perkins’ headquarters in Tennessee, and Friendly’s home office in Wilbraham, Mass., just outside Boston.

Outraged, Pres Blake bought back into the public company controlled by Smith, amassing enough stock to become its largest shareholder. He then joined forces with other stakeholders, including Steak ‘n Shake owner Sardar Biglari, to force a change in ownership.

Curtis Blake did not agree with his big brother, and publicly severed ties with him. They would not reconcile for a number of years.

The challengers found a buyer in 2007 in Sun Capital Partners, the private-equity company that was gobbling up heritage restaurant brands at the time. But the change failed to reinvigorate Friendly’s fortunes. The operation filed for bankruptcy in 2011, when 100 stores were closed.

Friendly’s filed for Chapter 11 protection again last November. By then, the chain, which extended to 507 locations in 2009, had shrunk to less than 140 locations.

It was acquired out of bankruptcy in January by Amici Partners, owners of the Red Mango frozen-yogurt chain. The holding company says it intends to keep the 130 or so remaining units in operation.

Curtis Blake died in 2019 at age 102.

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