I loved everything about being a Friendly Ice Cream waitress.
In 1974-1975, when I worked at the Great Neck, NY store pictured above, the original gray uniforms were still in use. I loved bleaching and ironing the white ruffled apron, taking care to separate and smooth each ruffle slowly with the iron tip. I applied a lot of starch.
It was a fun place to work, and not just because we got to dress up on Halloween. Most of the employees were kids from my high school and the Friendly’s shift structure encouraged team building. I think the shift design concept went something like this: figure out how many people are needed to successfully prepare and serve the expected number of customers, then schedule at least two fewer people.
We had to move quickly and rely on the competence of our shift members. This made the job easier for managers and shift supervisors since the shift members themselves would try to correct, then isolate and ultimately shun an employee not functioning at optimal warp speed.
It was necessary to memorize the entire menu during the application process, a requirement that tended to weed out under-performers.
Friendly’s had a philosophy that employees should rotate positions and learn each one well, making shift scheduling more efficient for the manager. This meant learning how to wait tables, cook hamburgers and other grill items, handle cash at the register, wash dishes, and best of all, make ice cream sundaes with special scoops designed for portion control.
It was a closed system. No aspect of Friendly Ice Cream operations had been left to the imagination of the franchisee. A large, thick manual detailed every part of daily operations, from tidying up the sidewalk outdoors in the morning, stocking the grill and ice cream stations, making immediate eye contact with each and every customer that walked through the door, to wiping down salt and pepper shakers at closing time.
I loved the challenge of mastering the different position rotations and within six months was promoted to shift supervisor. It was a powerful experience, being in charge, and I think it went to my head because I started thinking: I could be a Friendly Ice Cream Store manager.
Friendly’s also served as a kind of surrogate family and community. My manager and shift supervisors offered parental advice and one of the supervisors invited me on a vacation with their family to the Jersey shore. A regular customer and Fire Department volunteer took me for my DMV road test to obtain my driver’s license, and sometimes the parents of my friends coming into the shop for ice cream would ask if I was doing ok, and squeeze a $20 bill into my hand.
About this time, a certain school district official responsible for following up on students who are enrolled in a district school but are not living with a legal guardian called and asked that I come to the district offices for a meeting. I was nervous but he turned out to be very nice. He wanted to know what my plans were and I told him I was going to graduate, then go into the Friendly Ice Cream manager trainee program.
He replied, “No, you’re not. You’re going to college.” I was shocked. College? I had no clue how that was going to happen. He explained that I could become legally emancipated, then apply to colleges and universities in New York as part of the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). I would qualify as an EOP student because I was making less than $3,000 a year on my waitress salary, and as an EOP student applicant, my 83 and holding average would not exclude me from the best State University of New York (SUNY) schools. As an EOP student, all of my expenses would be covered, including tuition, board, books and a stipend for incidentals like travel expenses and shampoo. I was stunned.
The first thing that worried me was was filling out all the necessary forms to arrange for my legal emancipation, EOP status, and the school applications themselves. I was working full time and spending most of my spare time completing high school courses, so I didn’t see how completing all of these forms could possibly fit into the schedule. The school official said that he would handle all of it for me, that I could just continue working and wait for the letters of acceptance to arrive.
I was accepted at all of the major SUNY campuses as an EOP student, including Buffalo, Stony Brook and Albany. I decided to go to Albany because I was ready to get away from Long Island, but didn’t want to go as far away as Buffalo.
Once all of these plans were in place and I was on track to graduate from high school in January 1976, my mother decided that I could move home for the seven months between graduation and heading off to Albany.
She misjudged my progress in becoming a responsible adult. I was supposed to play a role in the family of one who is reformed and setting a good example, but instead, between shifts at the Friendly Ice Cream store in Huntington, Long Island my friends and I got high listening to Joni Mitchell records and drove around Long Island going to bars and clubs to drink and dance. I turned 18 in 1976 and in those days in New York, 18 was the legal drinking age. One of my girlfriends loved to play pool, so we played a lot of pool at bars, slept on beaches with our boyfriends, and in general did whatever we wanted. This isn’t what my mother had in mind.
A girlfriend drove me to Albany in September 1976. I felt I had arrived. I couldn’t wait to start studying, immediately signing up for way too many credits, including a 5-credit Russian language course, but also Classics, Philosophy, and Poetry classes. I was hungry for knowledge and absolutely determined to be successful. And I was successful, getting mostly A’s after the first semester (too many classes, indeed) and ultimately graduating Magna Cum Laude with a 3.67 GPA.
EOP was a fabulous opportunity, but it had a gotcha. School is not in session during the Winter and Summer breaks, and there were no provisions for living arrangements during those times. You had to find somewhere to live during these breaks. The intention was to ensure that students could focus on studies, and live at home when not taking courses (assuming that a family structure was in place). I did go home to my mother’s for the Winter break, though relations were quite strained. I was told to get a job despite the break being only a few weeks and incredibly was able to get one at the Golden Dolphin in Huntington. Both my mother and I were quite happy when the break ended and I was off to school again.
Then there was the Summer break. I was not allowed to come home for this break. I learned this shortly after the January break or perhaps while still at my Mom’s during the break and thus started looking around for a Friendly Ice Cream store in Albany. My EOP financial aid package didn’t include rent for a Summer apartment, though it did cover off-campus housing during the term. I would need a job to pay for rent during the summer.
I knew better than to wait until Summer to apply for a job, so I obtained a part-time position during the Winter term at a store in which the manager had become famous within the chain for generating off-the-chart revenues. He was a model for other franchisees, referred to by some as the Friendly Ice Cream king.
He was in fact an excellent manager. We became friends, then started dating that Summer of 1977, when I was working full time to pay for my apartment. I was well-aware that earning this income would very likely destroy my financial aid eligibility, since the EOP severely restricted the income one could earn from employment; however, I had to keep working in order to pay rent. I was running out of options, and had no idea how to solve this problem.
The Friendly Ice Cream king proposed marriage and I accepted.