Curtis Blake, one of two brothers who began scooping double-dip ice cream cones for a nickel during the Depression and grew their Massachusetts eatery into Friendly’s, a restaurant chain where diners have indulged in Fribble milkshakes and cherry-topped sundaes for generations, died May 24 at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 102.
He had a heart condition, said his daughter, Susan Blake.
For many residents of the eastern United States, the red gables of Friendly’s restaurants are nearly as recognizable as the golden arches of McDonald’s.
The operation began in 1935, when Curtis Blake and S. Prestley Blake were 18 and 20, respectively — and scarcely able to imagine the riches they would reap from their modest start. With few if any job prospects amid the Depression, they borrowed $547 from their parents to open the first Friendly ice cream shop in Springfield, Mass.
Curtis Blake came up with the name. He and his brother were “friendly guys by nature,” Prestley Blake told the Boston Globe years later, “and we wanted to be super nice to our customers.”
(The apostrophe S of Friendly’s was not formally added to the company name until 1989.)
When other purveyors of ice cream charged a dime for two scoops, the Blake brothers offered their customers the same treat for 5 cents. The bargain produced a respectable $27.60 in earnings their first night in business.
It was hard work for the two young men, who decided through a coin flip that Curtis would be the first president and his brother would be the treasurer. Prestley Blake later became chief executive.
“When we closed our first shop at midnight, one of us would stay at the store and start making ice cream for the next day, and the other went home and slept,” Mr. Blake told Hemmings Daily, a website devoted to classic cars — the passion, outside ice cream, that both brothers nurtured.
“Then the ice cream maker would come home and sleep around 7 a.m.,” he continued. “Then that one would go back to help with the noon hour, because we put in hamburgers and coffee in the fall.”
The Fribble, an ultra-thick shake, became a popular item. The expansion of the menu beyond ice cream came in 1940, according to a company history. For the many Catholics in their neighborhood who observed meatless Fridays, the brothers offered grilled cheese in addition to burgers.
In 1950 they began selling take-home ice cream containers. Decades later, Friendly’s products, with the winsome script of the Friendly’s name emblazoned across their red cartons, are immediately recognizable in grocery stores.
By 1951, the brothers had 10 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1974, according to the company, there were 500 Friendly locations across the northeastern United States and the Mid-Atlantic.
Susan Blake said that the $547 her father and uncle borrowed from their parents was the only loan that they took out until the 1960s. Their caution, she said, was born of the Depression. But as the company expanded, the brothers weathered disagreements about how to manage its growth.
Mr. Blake credited his brother with excellent stewardship of the company in its early years. “I never could have done it alone,” Mr. Blake told the Springfield Republican. But “then as the company grew, he just couldn’t think big enough.”
In 1979, the brothers sold Friendly to Hershey Foods, the maker of the eponymous chocolate bar, for about $164 million. The Tennessee Restaurant Co. then purchased the business in 1988 for $375 million and took Friendly’s public in 1997.
In the early 2000s, amid declining fortunes for Friendly’s, Prestley Blake bought enough stock to own a 12 percent stake in the company — making him its largest shareholder — in an effort to regain influence on its direction.
An affiliate of Sun Capital Partners bought the company for $337.2 million in 2007. Four years later, amid heavy debts and a decline in business that the Globe attributed in part to slower service, an increasingly “dingy” look to many locations and cuts in portion sizes and quality, Friendly’s declared bankruptcy.
As of April, after the shuttering of 23 locations, the company had 77 corporate restaurants and 97 franchises, according to the publication Restaurant Business. About a quarter of the company’s locations have closed since 2017, the publication reported.
Curtis Livingston Blake was born in Springfield on April 15, 1917. His father was employed by the Standard Electric Time Co., which manufactured electric clocks, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Blake and his brother closed the original Friendly ice cream shop during World War II, when Curtis Blake served in the Army Air Forces in England. They posted a sign advising visitors that they would return “when we win the war” — and they did.
Mr. Blake’s first marriage, to Aileen MacFarland, ended in divorce, and their son, C. Channing Blake, died in 1995. Mr. Blake’s second wife, the former Patricia Harrington Ulcickas, died in 2018 after 44 years of marriage.
Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Susan Blake; three stepchildren, Anne Garrymore, James Ulcickas and Joseph Ulcickas; a sister; 10 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and Prestley Blake, who is 104.
The older brother said his favorite Friendly’s ice cream flavors were chocolate and coffee. For the younger, Forbidden Chocolate was hardest to resist.
Mr. Blake said that, beyond the ice cream, it was service that would keep diners coming back. “Remember the name on the door,” Mr. Blake recalled telling his employees. “Always be friendly to every customer.”