Friendly's mini-restaurants: it's not fast food -- not, not, not

Friendly'sFriendliness alone isn't getting the job done for Friendly's restaurants any more -- sales have dipped 7 percent since 2004.

In an attempt to capture the antsy diner, the chain is opening new, smaller stores that break the old waiter-takes-your-order model in favor of customers ordering at the counter and having the food delivered to their table.

The first Friendly's Express debuted this week in Mansfield, Mass. The privately-held corporation hopes to take the concept to up to 300 locations in the East.

So what's different from the typical Friendly's? Size, for one; the Express's footprint is only two-thirds that of its big brother, with only 40 seats. The menu is also pared down to the casual meal essentials; sandwiches, salads, drinks and ice cream.

Most appealing to me, who quit going to Friendly's years ago because of the slow service -- the Express hopes to trim the time from when you order to when you receive your food to six to eight minutes. That's pretty quick for made-to-order food.

I'm guessing this concept will also allow the chain to enter food court settings, a mouth-watering slice of the market. The first store opened in 1935 in Springfield, Mass., as Friendly Ice Cream. In 1940, hamburgers were added, and over the years the chain grew to its present 500-plus outlets.

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