Portsmouth eatery with a past looks to the future

The Friendly Toast's two locations bring in about $5.5 million in combined annual sales
The new owners of the Friendly Toast in Portsmouth - shown here before it got its lime-green makeover - gave it a facelift and are looking to expand while staying focused on the food.

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.”

Goodwin may look like a management type of guy, but his roots in the restaurant business go back to scrubbing dishes from the age of nine at the famous Green Ridge Turkey Farm, formerly in Nashua. In college at Plymouth State University, he worked for the Common Man restaurants and eventually went on to run a Chili’s franchise.

The restaurant business isn’t easy when raising a family, so Goodwin took his experience and started Goodwin Hospitality & Associates in 1999, a Concord-based company that offers restaurant management recruiting and research and consulting services for a variety of clients. Goodwin has also invested in Planet Fitness franchises in Arizona.

Taking over a well-known restaurant like the Friendly Toast has its upside and its drawbacks. To an outside observer, the upside seemed high when previous owners Melissa and Robert Jasper put it up for sale more than two years ago.

With a long list of awards, national name recognition and lines out the door every weekend, investors should have been clamoring for the chance to buy the diner chain, but problems with the Portsmouth restaurant’s physical space and equipment, outstanding debts and spotty bookkeeping posed challenges to whoever would take over.

They were also partly to blame for a since-settled lawsuit filed by former Friendly Toast manager Chris Hartin, who claimed the restaurant was sold out from under him after he had negotiated a sales agreement with the Jaspers.

Goodwin didn’t want to focus on issues related to the previous ownership, but did admit he had reservations about buying the Toast, largely because of the amount of work it would take to manage it.

“I walked away originally,” said Goodwin. “I naturally had apprehensions about getting back into the operations side.”

A year after that initial interest, Pulver approached Goodwin with a proposal to buy the Toast.

The real estate developer and commercial property owner said he was attracted to the Friendly Toast “because of its dedicated following, and the incredible food.” Goodwin said having a “smart, capable partner,” to help with the transition and grow the business made the move seem right.

Investing in Portsmouth

The front of the house changes are subtle, but will be recognizable to any regular. The bizarre art and vintage advertising still line the walls, which are now lime green, but the restaurant’s short booths and black and white ‘50s-style tile are gone, replaced by taller booths and dark wood flooring. Goodwin said he plans to eventually add a bar to increase evening business and to maximize use of the restaurant’s full liquor license.

The greatest changes to the Portsmouth location are likely to go unseen by the diners. As a condition of the sale, the city required health and safety updates, mostly in the kitchen, that cost an estimated $75,000. Goodwin said there were more updates needed, and some yet to come, that will bring the total renovation cost to about $250,000. The updates include buying cooking equipment that meets modern safety standards and an HVAC system.

“We wanted the team to have the modern tools and equipment to operate at the level we wanted, and the city wanted it updated to code,” said Goodwin.

Staffing has also undergone changes. Additional support staff like bussers and food runners were added, and a defined management structure was created to oversee staff, including hiring a new general manager from the Portsmouth Flatbread Company pizza restaurant, located across the street.

Under the previous ownership, wait staff submitted orders on paper tickets and calculated checks by hand. That system was abandoned in favor of a computerized POS system, a change some Friendly Toast veterans say was long overdue.

“What a nightmare,” said Marc Sklar, a former Friendly Toast cook who now works as a business systems analyst for Liberty Mutual and is the namesake of the meat-laden omelet, the Sklarmageddon.

He said the lack of controls under the old system led to excessive food loss and inconsistency. “So a restaurant business basic, like calculating food cost, was actually impossible, given the lack of controls and the out-of-date ticket system. I know a lot of the old employees hate the new systems, but I would’ve done the same thing.”

Portsmouth has built a successful tourism industry and is the midst of a construction boom, but despite its recent growth, residents tend to be very resistant to change. The public reaction to the Friendly Toast sale took Goodwin by surprise.

“Everyone was very concerned with the direction we were taking the restaurant in,” said Goodwin. After the sale went public, Goodwin said he received numerous calls, media inquiries, emails and text messages from people wondering what the new Toast would be like.

“It’s still about creative food that’s fresh,” he said, adding, “Our number one goal is to earn the trust from the locals. We need to be more than a tourist destination to be successful.”

Building a relationship

The continued flow of customers reveals that most locals are fine with any differences, but the public face the new owners have put on the Friendly Toast is rubbing some the wrong way. A new website, blog and social media presence were created as part of an overall marketing strategy to interact directly with dinners, especially younger patrons.

Sharing the Friendly Toast’s message through these outlets is seen by some, however, as cashing in on the restaurant’s cool factor.

“To me, it proves that they have no real understanding of what made The Toast awesome,” said Sklar. The coolness is not about catch phrases and quirky wall posts – it comes from being a place to run into friends and hang out late at night, said Sklar. “If they try to make the coolness of the Toast explicit, it will become a parody of itself and end up being a joke.”

Despite the lingering skepticism, Goodwin said he’s seen the majority of public response turn from wary to welcoming. Much of the credit for the quick customer acceptance goes to the staff, he said, who were “open-minded” to the changes being proposed. “Buying two restaurants on the fly, without closing in the transition, and building trust in the team is very challenging,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin is now preparing for the busy summer tourism season and finishing up renovations. The next step: to expand the Friendly Toast brand into other locations.

“We do intend to grow it,” Goodwin said. “We think a lot of towns would like to have a Friendly Toast.”

Categories: Business Profiles, Restaurants, Retail & Tourism