Bob Farrell dies at 87; founded chain of old-time ice cream parlors

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, you may have had a birthday party at a Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour where you could have sampled the Pig's Trough, a giant banana split.

Or maybe you and your friends had the Zoo, a huge platter of ice cream and toppings served on a stretcher that took two servers to hoist to your table.

Adding to the atmosphere: waiters dressed in old-time soda fountain garb, a drum brigade marched around the parlor and sometimes even a visiting marching band was on hand.

Gimmicky? Sure, but families loved it. "I'm the show-business person," said the chain's founder, Bob Farrell, to Nation's Restaurant News in 1985. "I have a lot of street sense and know what people want."

Farrell, 87, who was also a popular motivational speaker with a signature lecture, "Give 'em the Pickle!" died Aug. 15 in a care facility in Portland, Ore. The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, said his wife, Ramona.

In the early 1960s, he was working in sales in Portland for the Libby, McNeill & Libby canned goods company when he got the idea for the ice cream parlors. "He remembered a place called Jahn's ice cream from when he was growing up in New York," Ramona Farrell said. "There was nothing out here like that.

"He wanted a place that would be fun for families, from kids to grandparents."

From the beginning, the show — with the period atmosphere, silly songs and special presentations for birthdays — was as much a draw as the ice cream and food.

The first shop, which opened in Portland in 1963, was an immediate hit, and more followed, including shops in Southern California. Farrell left the financial part of the operation mostly to others — he enjoyed creating the celebratory format, and was known for popping into the restaurants to raise the atmosphere. "I guess I call myself the flamboyant motivator," he told Nation's Restaurant News.

In 1972, with more than 50 shops in the chain, he sold the operation to the Marriott corporation, which expanded it much further, probably too fast. And in the wrong places.

Marriott, Charles Bernstein wrote in the trade publication, decided "that part of Farrell's future really was in shopping centers where prime sites could be obtained in bulk." But the antics Farrell created as a cornerstone of the operation were not a good fit in malls, and sales fell off.

A group of San Francisco-based investors who took over the chain in 1982 further quieted the fun, making the shops more adult-oriented. But sales kept dropping and eventually all of the shops closed.

"That's what killed them, they lost the party business," Farrell said in 1985. "They took out everything I thought was important."

Robert Farrell was born Dec. 10, 1927, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Four years later, with the family in financial distress due to the Depression, his father killed himself and his mother, unable to cope, put Farrell and his sister in a church-run home for children.

When his mother remarried five years later, she took the children back.

Before finishing high school, Farrell joined the Air Force, eventually getting a high school equivalency degree. He and his wife were married in 1951.

In addition to her, Farrell is survived by daughters Kristie Booster, Kathleen Farrell and Colleen Smith; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

In 2009, new owners revived the Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour chain, opening a shop in Santa Clarita and expanding to several other locations, including Brea, Buena Park, Rancho Cucamonga, Mission Viejo and Riverside. This time, they stayed with Farrell's original formula, even bringing back the Pig's Trough and Zoo.

In the meantime, Farrell had gone on to several new ventures and became a popular speaker with his talk about putting customers first. It was rooted in a letter he got from a regular customer in Seattle who enjoyed the hamburgers and especially the pickles at a local Farrell's. But he was unhappy that on one occasion, a waitress refused to give him an extra pickle unless he paid for it. The letter writer felt so slighted that he said he would not return to the restaurant.

Farrell wrote a letter of apology, provided him with a coupon and made customer satisfaction the core driving force of the company.

"I thank him to this day," Farrell said in a video of his lecture. "The war cry of our company became, 'Give them the pickle!' "

david.colker@latimes

Twitter @davidcolker

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