When Friendly’s began closing restaurants Tuesday in anticipation of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, it seems to have left a lot of things behind.
Nostalgic patrons of the restaurant, which survived for 76 years, were left behind with the memories made many decades ago at the franchise’s cramped booths. Thousands of employees were left behind to work within the uncertainty of a corporation now going through bankruptcy reorganization. Several hundred even-more-unlucky employees were let go, immediately left behind to go find a job in the middle of a quickly detriorating economic landscape.
Perhaps the most curious of all the things left behind, however, are the buildings occupied by the 63 locations shuttered as part of the bankruptcy filing, many of which will likely become oddities in the Northeastern landscape where most closed locations lie.
To understand why, one first needs to grasp a phenomenon that might be as unique to modern capitalism as fractional reserve banking, CEO compensation committees or complex derivatives trading: the re-converted fast food location, or reco for short.
Unlike the former examples, recos are not hard to understand. Fast-food chains have strict guidelines franchisees must follow when designing and decorating their branches. New owners will follow the rules fastidiously. Later, when the specific outlet of the national chain goes out of business, the idiosyncratic building is left unoccupied. If a new business takes place there, the new management might spend on re-branding or re-decorating, but just as likely, it might do little more than just change the name on the door.
“The cheapest thing to do is paint whatever skins you have on the exterior and put some canvas awnings on it,” says Ed Kelly, a partner at Michigan-based Kelly Tinker Architects, whose firm has advised various (slightly more complex) re-conversion projects.
The results are sometimes “overwhelmingly crass and commercial” according to notfoolinganybody.com, a website dedicated to cataloguing examples of particularly egregious recos. Calling the phenomenom “a delightful yet sad part of our culture's clattering landscape,” the site then goes on to qualify it as “an amusing diversion, [..] an economic gestalt, […] a crime of design, […] a confusion to the would-be consumer.”
If you’ve ever driven past a solid concrete building shaped like a covered wagon and stopped to wonder why the ten-gallon hat sign on top of the building reads anything but Arby’s, you’ve seen a reco. If you’ve ever laughed at the fact the red-brick building with the trapezoidal windows and sloping “hut”-style roof is now a health-food market, you’ve seen a reco. If you’ve ever walked into a squat Mission-style building with rounded windows in the front, only to be sadly disappointed when your cries of “Yo quiero Taco Bell” fall on deaf ears, you’ve seen a reco.
In Friendly’s case, many of the 63 closed locations follow an easily recognizable architectural mold: a Northeastern “cottage-style” white brick building with wide windows and a signature domed cupola.Such signature design elements, particularly the cupolas, are likely to stand.
The challenges to re-converting the buildings, Kelly explains, are multifold. Floor measurements and other specifications normally required to undertake any major renovation are usually held in a franchise’s corporate headquarter, which might not be friendly to giving these away to developers it does not know. In one case, Kelly was commissioned to convert a Big Boy Restaurant into an IHOP. When he asked Big Boy for the floor plans, they balked.
“We had to measure it from scratch,” says Kelly, who claims he worked 20-hour days for five weeks to get the project done, later adding, “we probably shouldn’t have mentioned we were putting in a new restaurant.”
And that was an easy job. Another re-conversion noted by Kelly, where his firm helped turn a Tastee-Freez into a full-service barbecue restaurant, took five months.
Of course, not all recos end up being “crass.” In a particularly contrarian example, an IHOP near Los Angeles was reborn last year as a trendy, fashion-forward high-end restaurant with a star chef. A-Frame, which opened last year to adoring reviews, has such a steady demand that it does not take reservations.
The chances are not so good all of the 63 boarded-up Friendly's will find such a glamorous after-life. But who knows? Perhaps the chain, widely known for its “Happy Ending” sundaes, may have one of its own