When it’s changing all around you

2014-06-12 18.50.29

The little nugget enjoying a Friendly Toast fry

I pitched a story about the Friendly Toast on a Tuesday morning. Less than 24-hours later I wondered if I had made a mistake.

Jeff Feingold, editor of New Hampshire Business Review, liked the idea immediately. He asked for a profile of the well-known Portsmouth eatery and a look at the benefits and challenges that come with taking over a business that everyone seems to love just the way it is. By noon on Tuesday, I had posted the following on my Facebook page, hoping to nudge some opinionated people into commenting on what I had heard was a controversial change in management.

“As a regular Facebook user, I’ve notice the Friendly Toast changing ownership story has elicited strong opinions from Seacoast residents who are long-time patrons, and especially from those who once worked there. I am writing a story for a business publication about the new ownership and the direction they are taking the business. But if I’m going to write this, I don’t want to gloss over that’s there’s been some controversy in the change in ownership. I would like to interview a few people who work/worked there and long-time customers about the changes being made. I’m not sure what will end up in the final story, but I want input from these folks before I sit down to write it.

Have you worked for the Toast in the past 5 years? Are you a regular customer who’s been to the Toast since the new owners have taken over? Are you a customer who’s had a hard time going back now that someone else owns it? Do you feel this change is just one more sign Portsmouth has lost its soul? Please contact me about being a source. Or if you’d just like to leave a ranty comment about the Friendly Toast, past or present, that’s fine too.

The response to this post was immediate, but mostly from people I expected to chime in, not necessarily people I wanted to interview. Around mid-afternoon on Tuesday, I got a private message from a woman saying she had some friends who wanted to talk to me for the story. I gave her my email, letting her know I wanted to talk to anyone, pro or con. I received an email a few hours later from a long-time customer raving about the royal treatment given to his relatives, who recently married, and their extra special love for the Toast. The story sounded familiar, and I soon figured out why. It was featured on the Friendly Toast’s own blog.

The next morning, I found an email from a representative from the owner’s marketing company, letting me know that the Friendly Toast owner would love to chat. Before I had a chance to email her back, I got a message from the owner (!?) saying he can’t wait to do an interview.

Before I could even ask, I have an interview lined up.

In any other city, this would seem like a lucky break for the reporter and nothing more, but in Portsmouth, where a city meeting on sprucing up a small parking lot draws a skeptical crowd and causes a 30-minute debate over where to put a dumpster, this is a symptom of a much later problem.

Portsmouth residents and business owners are divided on the growth the city has seen in the past decade. As other communities struggle to pull themselves out of the recession, Portsmouth is booming. We’ve seen two new hotels go up and another is on its way. There will soon be conference center and a Whole Foods — a big deal for a city of 25,000 people — and enough luxury condos to house all the rich empty nesters north of Boston. Some see this as progress. Other say the soul of the city is dying. Any change, no matter how badly needed, is maligned as another sinister way to rid the city of its historic charm. The result of this long distaste for anything new are hideous fake historic buildings made of brick, nowhere to park because we can’t decide where to build a new garage or if we should even encourage more people to come, and a divided City Council paralyze by the ginned-up outrage of a small but active minority.

It is in that context that the new owners of the Friendly Toast became wary of anyone accusing them of changing yet another Portsmouth institution. Despite improvements to the building and operations, rumors of horrible working conditions and substandard food being served flew around town. I brought these rumors to the owners during our interview, and he addressed them. I was honest. I had to include some dissenting voices, and he understood. I suppose after operating in Portsmouth for six month, you see outrage over the color of the walls and the size of the servings as part of doing business here.

Friendly Toast, Portsmouth, NH

Friendly Toast, Portsmouth, NH

Portsmouth eatery with a past looks to the future

Walk down Congress Street in Portsmouth any Sunday morning and you’ll find a crowd of roughly 15 people milling about on the sidewalk, waiting for a table at the Friendly Toast.

For 20 years, the diner-style restaurant has been an anchor in downtown Portsmouth, attracting both visitors and locals with its big plates of homemade food and retro décor ripped straight from the walls of your crazy aunt’s house.

The menu has 75 items that include nachos, burritos, milkshakes, homemade soups and nine different burgers, but breakfast is the true star at the Friendly Toast. Served all day, offerings include the basics, like eggs benedict and blueberry pancakes. What the Toast is best known for is the original dishes, like the popular Guy Scramble – a mix of eggs, cheddar, avocado, black beans and fresh salsa – or the Green Eggs and Ham – a play on eggs benedict that includes anadama bread and a homemade triple herb sauce. Most dishes are served with a big, butter-slathered piece of toast, made from bread baked in-house daily.

These eclectic dishes have earned the Friendly Toast national recognition. The restaurant took fourth place in the Best Breakfast in America contest held by “Good Morning America” and was named “one of the best breakfast places in America” by Esquire magazine.

This year, the restaurant earned the state’s best breakfast honors in New Hampshire Magazine’s “Best of NH” readers’ poll, and both the Portsmouth Friendly Toast and its sister location in Cambridge, Mass. received a certificate of excellence from the review website TripAdvisor.

The Friendly Toast’s two locations bring in about $5.5 million in combined annual sales. The Portsmouth location has 45 employees and seats 143. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. most days, and until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday night, making it the largest late-night dining spot in downtown Portsmouth.

The Portsmouth Friendly Toast generates roughly $2 million in sales annually, but co-owner Eric Goodwin believes sales could easily grow to $2.5 million by the end of 2014.

A restaurant with a past

Goodwin and business partner Scott Pulver purchased both Friendly Toast locations in October 2013. With their new ownership come a number of changes, including upgrades to the kitchen and a new point of service computer system.

The changes caused some blowback among the locals, mostly worried that the laid-back, not-trying-to-be-cool coolness of the Friendly Toast would be lost. But Goodwin repeatedly emphasizes that the quality of the food and the overall feel of the dining experience have not and will not change.

“We are mindful of the historic value,” said Goodwin. “We want to strike a balance between ensuring all the things that make the Friendly Toast unique and special stay, while trying to protect the sustainability of the restaurant and utilize the industry’s best practices.”

To read more, please visit New Hampshire Business Review

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