Nothing lasts forever, including restaurants and other family favorite places we frequented as kids. Growing up on Long Island, the Red Coach Grill was our “go-to” for special family celebrations. A solidly middle-class restaurant chain, it seemed high class to me as a young boy, especially with its red leather chairs and all-you-can eat salad bar. It was eventually linked with Howard Johnson’s – another classic brand of another era.
While HoJo’s still exists by name, its ubiquity does not. Once upon a time, orange roofs were everywhere. No more. The Red Coach Grill shuttered a long time ago, too, a casualty of a changing economy.
I received word last night that the Friendly’s restaurant in my hometown closed its doors yesterday for good. Employees were told that very day – and also instructed they could take what they wanted. Several of my childhood friends were lamenting the loss on Facebook, reminiscing about it being the site of first jobs and first dates – and plenty of after-game or post-school-play-production cast parties.
Unless you grew up in the Northeast, you may not be familiar with Friendly’s, another chain dating back to the 1930s that’s been slowly fading over the last few decades. But that doesn’t really matter. We all know or knew a place like it – a meeting spot that holds memories not only because of the food but because of the people by our side as we ate it.
Friendly’s holds some of my earliest memories. Located at the corner of Central Avenue and Merrick Road in my hometown of Baldwin, just up the street from our house, the property was once home to the Brumbergs. It was a sprawling place befitting a large family. A wrecking ball took the house down in the mid 1970s, but not before townspeople stripped the dilapidated home of every usable item, including the bushes and light bulbs.
My grandmother liked to take us to Friendly’s when she came to visit. She always ordered a three-scoop sampler. We’d usually stop for cones after the Memorial Day parade. My mom or dad would often send us up the street to buy a half-gallon before company came for dinner. When I was in 7th grade, I would spend some of paper route money there, but due to my size (I was tall and overweight), the clerks questioned my age when I tried to order off the kid’s menu. I actually gave the manager a copy of my birth certificate in order to qualify. The restaurant was regularly packed out after graduations, ball games and plays.
Covid-related closures, worker shortages and inflation, among other factors, have hurt American businesses and even upended longstanding family traditions. If you need to cut back to make the ends meet, ice cream is a dispensable luxury. According to Jeff Tonberg, co-owner of Whitey’s Ice Cream, a longtime family business with stores throughout Illinois and Iowa, the popular frozen treat is the kind of product that can transcend economic swings of fortune.
“Even when times are tough, people will splurge and enjoy an ice cream,” he said. “It’s a small but wonderful pleasure.”
Treats and time at an ice cream shop are minor things that yield major benefits. Studies regularly confirm that families who eat and celebrate life together enjoy a greater degree of satisfaction. It’s a time to bond, unwind and not take life so seriously. After all, when’s the last time you got into an argument while enjoying an ice cream cone?