Bob Farrell was once quoted as saying, "I didn't sell ice cream, I sold a good time. The ice cream was the vehicle." And Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor was all about a good time. With a decor theme of the early 1900's, enthusiastic servers wore straw boater hats and pinstriped costumes. So many happy memories instantly come to mind when adults remember childhood birthday celebrations or high school social outings spent at the now-defunct Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour Restaurant.
Farrell's was founded in 1963 in Portland, Oregon by Bob Farrell and Ken McCarthy. Every Farrell's had a player piano, Tiffany-style lamps, and a newsprint style menu. Brooklyn-born co-founder Bob Farrell wanted the ambiance to feel like the neighborhood he grew up in, inspired by a NYC deli/candy store of simpler times.
The simple menu items had catchy names and an even more impressive presentation. A free ice cream sundae for every kid (or adult) having a birthday was accompanied by excited employees singing at the top of their lungs. There was a full menu of appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, and dozens of different sundaes. Old fashioned malts, shakes, ice cream sodas and ice cream floats added to the very retro experience. Farrell's was THE place for birthday parties, whether you were in Socal, Los Angeles, or across the country in New York.
Farrell's did it all in a big way and customers loved it. There was a FIFTY scoop sundae called "The Zoo" that was delivered on a stretcher held by two strong male waiters as an ambulance siren wailed in the background. By 1970, there were more than 50 locations in the Western US wowing people with their grandiose family fun.
In 1972, the Farrell's chain was purchased by the Marriott Corporation and it grew to over 120 locations nationwide within just a few years. But then sales began to drop and Marriot began selling off locations in 1982 to private investor groups. The Farrell's name was changed to various similar-sounding old-timey names but it was never the same. By 1990, almost all of Farrell's locations had closed up.
One of the last original Portland Oregon Farrell's locations was still serving sundaes under the name "The Original Portland Ice Cream Parlor." That spot closed in 2001, and in 2006, the location where it all started closed the doors on its current incarnation called "The Pearl Street Ice Cream Parlour." It was the end of an ice cream era, or was it?
In 2008, after lawyers fought it out, Parlour Enterprises Inc of Lake Forest, California, became the new owner and operator of Farrell's properties. They created a franchise model with none other than Bob Farrell as advisor. Ice cream got "scooping" quickly and seven Farrell's locations opened up in Northern and Southern California. There was the Mountasia Family Fun Center in Santa Clarita, Rancho Cucamonga, downtown Brea, Riverside, Sacramento, and Buena Park. The ice cream parlor was often used as a shopping center anchor store, drawing customers of all ages.
But by 2016, Farrell's had found itself with over $2 million in debt and began closing locations that weren't cutting the proverbial financial mustard, starting with the Mission Viejo location in January 2016.
A Reality Show Intervention
In August 2016, Farrell's was featured on CNBC's series "The Profit," but even after entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis made a deal, buying 51% of the business, the last locations still continued to close, often with no notice. Phone calls went unanswered and doors were simply locked.
Sadly, when the last Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour closed up in 2019 in the Brea location, Marcus Lemonis shelved his active rescue role for FarrellsUSA.
Lemonis told the Mercury News that he would come up with a plan for the franchise when the time was right.
"I'll hold onto it until I find another opportunity, even a smaller concept like a quick serve, and trademark it," Lemonis said. "I'll put it on the shelf and wait for the right window."
A Happy Place With Some Tragic Events
For a business filled with such happy hot fudge-filled memories for so many customers, there were also some tragedies associated with Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour locations.
On September 24, 1972, a privately owned jet piloted by Richard Bingham failed to take off while leaving the Golden West Sport Aviation Air Show at Sacramento, California's Executive Airport. It went off the end of the runway and crashed into Farrell's Sacramento ice cream parlour location. Twenty-two people died and many were injured.
On April 9, 1982, a small private plane crashed into the road and burst into flames in front of the Farrell's Torrance California location. The pilot and his two passengers died but no one on the ground was hurt.
In April 2014, a car lost control and ran into a line of customers waiting outside the Buena Park store. One person died and six others were injured.
Give 'Em the Pickle
Farrell was a big believer in the power of great customer service. A regular customer had been getting a free extra pickle with his hamburger whenever he asked for it. But when a new waitress happened to get him as a table one day, she charged him a nickel for the extra pickle. The customer wrote Bob Farrell, telling him he had lost a customer over the nickel charge. Farrell wrote back with a coupon for a free ice cream sundae and made sure that everyone in the company now knew to "forget the nickel and just give 'em the pickle."
Bob Farrell died Friday, August 14, 2015, in Vancouver after an extended illness with his wife, Ramona, and family by his side. He was 87.