As a father, I have prided myself on my ability to answer my children’s questions, from the zany ones requiring quick thinking and an active imagination (while oftentimes driving an automobile) when they were wee ones to the increasingly challenging ones, familiar to many a ma or pop, as they grew older.
But this one has dogged me for a while: “Where are all the Friendly’s going?”
Ah, Friendly’s. Purveyor of the Fishamajig and the Jubilee Roll, the former a fish sandwich I’ve actually never so much as tried and the latter a holiday staple since I was a wee one m’self, what one periodical once declared “the ultimate festive ice cream treat.” They couldn’t be more right. And don’t get me started on their “Wattamelon Roll.”
This franchise once seemingly had a restaurant that sat at the crossroad of every other New England block, and managed to elevate a simple sandwich simply by referring to it as a “melt” and serving it on sourdough bread. I can actually vividly recall me being the kid, and quizzing my mother on what sourdough bread was exactly and why she wasn’t bringing home loaves from the supermarket. True story.
Now there are but a handful of Friendly’s restaurants in the entire state, with the closest to the Connecticut Shoreline probably being the one in Mystic, which competes with the eateries at the Mistick Village directly across the street. Talk about a losing fight.
Founded basically right next door, in neighboring Massachusetts, back in 1935, the “diner-style” restaurant with the ice cream shoppe - and accompanying walk-up windows - found its way, ultimately, all the way to Florida at one point, until filing for Chapter 11 in...get this...2011. That same year saw the closing of 63 of them, one of them being the Friendly’s on Frontage Road in East Haven. Two others, both on Route 1, called it a day either just before or right after, if not maybe even the same year. One jutted out from a strip mall anchored by Richlin’s in Branford while the other was nestled between a myriad of eateries in Guilford, both for decades.
This was life in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a Friendly’s for every town, if not more than one in each, many sometimes no more than 10 minutes of a car ride apart. My kids wanted answers and I had none. In fact, when we do happen upon one of the ones still standing, on Universal Drive in North Haven, the question can still arise, and the older of my two children is 16! Such is the allure of what two Springfield, Mass., brothers with the last name Blake created matter-of-factly pretty much close to a hundred years ago.
On more than one occasion, when pressed about Friendly’s being an endangered species, I would bring up a restaurant I was similarly fond of in my youth, and just as perplexed at its vanishing: Farm Shop.
Try as I might, the name of this exceptional eatery did not elicit the same response as Friendly’s. After all, just think about that name. What child wouldn’t gravitate to it and then, upon leaving, belly full of sourdough bread and maybe even a Jim Dandy, feel as if they just left the only restaurant they’d ever need to go to?
“Farm Shop” — the name anyway — just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But I found — and continue to find —so many similarities between the two restaurants. Farm Shop was a Connecticut “franchise,” plain and simple. It began
here, grew to over 20 locations here, and died here. Never so much as one even a minute over state lines. Not so much as one in Westerly, R.I.!
As of 1985 there were Farm Shop restaurants everywhere from Avon to Naugatuck to Cheshire, in the Maplecroft Plaza. The only one in my “neck of the woods,” so to speak (and I was born and raised in the Morris Cove section of New Haven), was the one atop the “Branford Hill,” where a Honda dealership now sits, with a Harley-Davidson dealer as a neighbor.
The year 1985 being the restaurant’s “peak year” makes a very real sense to this Connecticut lifer. That was the year that I graduated high school, and Farm Shop was as close to an “Arnold’s” (the restaurant everyone gathered at in the old TV show “Happy Days”; “The Peach Pit” for those of you born later, in need of a “Beverly Hills, 90210” reference) as we got round these parts.
There were many a Sunday morning spent at that Farm Shop, all of us in our first cars, driver’s licenses still warm. Some of us would be fresh from Church with family, some working off first hangovers with the very friends we’d earned them alongside just hours earlier, and still others - this’d be me - there on a regular basis with our first girlfriends.
I spent my senior year of high school at the Farm Shop close to every single Sunday. One Sunday, in particular, I recall returning from the bathroom to my waiting girlfriend, who informed me she ordered for me while I was gone.
“What?” I blurted out in disbelief. “How would you even know what I want?”
“You always get the same thing,” she cooed. “The Texas toast French toast.”
She wasn’t wrong. I can still picture her face as she said this to me, all these years later (close to 35!) and almost still feel the warmth that washed over me that morning, even while waitresses frantically shouted orders to cooks wielding spatulas, every seat taken, friends waving frantically from a line that was getting longer and longer.
One time, when one of my kids was looking for a very real answer to their question “Why is Friendly’s going away” and my walk down Memory Lane wasn’t sufficing, I recall simply saying, “It just happens. And you just get over it.”
But you don’t. Not really. You never drive by the place where “that” restaurant once was without thinking about the days when it was there.
It’s going to be even more difficult for me to in the coming months (years?) since while I was researching this article I discovered that my beloved Farm Shop came to an end in 1987 when the company was bought. I never knew this until now: Who bought Farm Shop out? Friendly’s.