S. Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s ice cream chain, dead at 106

S. Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s ice cream chain, dead at 106
S. Prestley Blake and his younger brother turned a $547 loan into a multimillion-dollar ice cream venture. (Nancy Palmieri/Associated Press, file)

S. Prestley Blake, who co-founded the Friendly’s ice cream chain and transformed the sale of five-cent double-dip cones into a multimillion empire, died Thursday in Stuart, Florida. He was 106.

The cause of death was a gastric blockage, his wife, Helen Blake, told The Washington Post.

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“He lived a full life, right until the end, I can assure you of that,” his niece, Holly Schroeder, told The Associated Press.

Blake and his younger brother, Curtis Blake, borrowed $547 from their parents and founded the first Friendly Ice Cream store in the summer of 1935 in Springfield, Massachusetts, The New York Times reported.

The brothers charged a nickel for two scoops of ice cream, which was half the price of their competitors, the Times reported. The shop was an instant success. On their first night in business, according to the Springfield Republican, the line out the door kept the shop open until midnight, and the brothers sold 552 cones.

In 1940, the brothers opened a second shop in West Springfield, Massachusetts, adding coffee, hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches to the menu, the Post reported.

“We avoided debt like the plague, fueling almost all our growth from profits, “Pres” Blake wrote in his 2011 autobiography, “A Friendly Life.” “On rare occasions when we did borrow, we repaid our loans as quickly as possible. If that meant we grew more slowly than we otherwise might have, that was fine by us.”

In 1950, Friendly ice cream parlors began offering take-home ice cream, the Post reported. The ice cream would later be sold in grocery stores.

In 1951, the Blakes had 10 restaurants in Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to the company’s website. By 1974 there were 500 locations in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

The brothers sold the company to Hershey Foods in 1979 for $164 million, according to the Times. Hershey sold the chain in 1988 to the Tennessee Restaurant Company, which simplified the chain’s name to just Friendly’s, the newspaper reported. The company stock went public in 1997.

In 2000, Pres Blake, unhappy with the direction of Friendly’s and its faltering stock price, bought a 12% stake in the company for $2 million to become its largest shareholder, the Times reported.

“I did it to get some attention,” he told the Times in 2001. “When you become a major stockholder, that gets you attention pretty fast.”

Pres Blake later sued the company’s CEO, Donald Smith, over what he alleged was improper personal use of a company jet.

Friendly’s board of directors found no wrongdoing, and an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, a private investment firm, bought Friendly’s in 2007 for $337 million, the Post reported.

Friendly’s underwent bankruptcy proceedings in 2011 and 2020. Last month, Friendly’s and its remaining 130 locations were sold to Amici Partners Group for a reported $1.9 million, according to the Post.

After selling Friendly’s in 1979, Pres Blake traveled the world by sailboat and Concord jet, the Times reported. He also made a cameo appearance as a chauffeur in the 1970 movie, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon” which starred Liza Minelli.

Pres Blake celebrated his 100th birthday in 2014 by building a modernized replica of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, in Somers, Connecticut, the newspaper reported.

Curtis Blake died in 2019 at 102. Pres Blake is survived by his wife, Helen Blake; a sister, Betsy Melvin; a daughter, Nancy Yanakakis; several stepchildren; 16 grandchildren and step-grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

“I started small, worked hard, and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams,” Pres Blake wrote in his autobiography. “I got out of the ice cream business and was sitting pretty until I had to get off the couch and back into the fray. That battle’s over. I’m 96 and I’m officially retired. Maybe.”