Brian Schweikert trained Rebecca Levine (center) and Megan Campbell in scooping ice cream at the Friendly’s Express that will open tomorrow in Mansfield. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)

Brian Schweikert trained Rebecca Levine (center) and Megan Campbell in scooping ice cream at the Friendly’s Express that will open tomorrow in Mansfield. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)

Jenn Abelson reports in The Boston Globe that Friendly Ice Cream Corp. is looking to shake up the Wilbraham company with a new “fast casual’’ restaurant chain it hopes will thrive along the Eastern Seaboard.

 The first Friendly’s Express will open in Mansfield tomorrow. Customers will order at the counter from a limited menu, and employees will bring food to the table in less than 10 minutes.

It’s a few notches above fast food, with a more limited menu than at a traditional Friendly’s – the kind of dining a customer would find at a Panera Bread bakery cafe, for example.

The new restaurant, with just 40 seats, will also put a bigger emphasis on take-out orders for busy customers.

“This is all about speed and portability,’’ said Jim Sullivan, Friendly’s vice president of franchising and development. “Consumers today don’t have time for a sit-down experience.’’

The 2,200-square-foot restaurant is about one-third smaller than a typical Friendly’s. It represents an effort by the struggling company to enter one of the few growth areas in the restaurant business: delivering fresh, made-to-order food in a convenient setting.

Sales have dropped 7 percent over the past five years as the 504-restaurant Friendly’s chain has shuttered underperforming stores and battled problems with poor management and declining service, among other issues, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago research firm.

Friendly’s, begun by two brothers in 1935 as a neighborhood ice cream shop in Springfield, was acquired by the private equity firm Sun Capital Partners in 2007 after a heated proxy battle. The new owners brought in Ned Lidvall, who previously led Colorado-based Rock Bottom Restaurants, as chief executive and president of Friendly’s earlier this year.

Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at the consultancy WD Partners, said it makes sense for Friendly’s to enter this type of restaurant operation, but the chain will need to prove it has something unique to offer. The category is crowded, with rivals like Panera and Chipotle, which is in the Mansfield Marketplace shopping plaza.

“Friendly’s needs to have a compelling menu offer that is a good value in order to be competitive,’’ Lombardi said. “Friendly’s has a very strong name, especially in the Northeast. With the right design and menu offer, it could be a viable concept.’’

Friendly’s hopes to capitalize on its ice cream heritage as a way to stand apart from rivals.

The limited menu at Friendly’s Express includes products like burgers, supermelt sandwiches, and salads, and customers can add a drink and a two-scoop sundae for an additional $2 with any order. All of the menu items are priced at under $10 -up to $1 cheaper than at full-service restaurants.

And the company is putting a premium on quick service, by hiring a manager from the Wendy’s fast-food chain to run the new Mansfield restaurant and installing equipment like a front-loading chain broiler to cook hamburgers more quickly and efficiently than a flat grill would.

Friendly’s expects a six- to eight-minute turnaround time for customers from the time they order to when they are served – about half the wait at its full-service restaurants.

The smaller Friendly’s Express is a good growth vehicle for franchisees, costing half as much to build on average (about $600,000) and fitting into a wider variety of real estate options, Sullivan said.

Franchisees are still facing problems obtaining financing because of the tight credit market, but Sullivan said he expects lending to loosen up in the next six months. Friendly’s, which also runs corporate restaurants, will open one more Express location this year in Boston or Providence and another five in 2010. Over the next five years, Sullivan projected that the chain, with the help of franchisees, could open up to 300 East Coast shops.

“We see this as a real growth segment. There’s no doubt that some of the big players like Panera and Chipotle of the world have a big head start on us,’’ Lidvall said. “But we know we can compete by adding that sweet treat occasion.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

The Boston Globe