Farrell's featured fountain fantasies for festive families

If you were a kid in the '70s, Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour was your local Disneyland. It was "the" place to celebrate a birthday, feast on sweets and escape the adult world for a couple of hours.

"We treated kids like our best adult customers," says founder Bob Farrell, 76, who now lives in Vancouver, Wash., and recently reminisced with OMC.

Milwaukee had two Farrell's locations, one in Northridge Mall and one in Southridge. At the time, America was adorned with almost 200 Farrell's parlors -- most of which were in malls.

The wholesome eateries were recreations of old-fashion ice cream shops from the 1890s. The memorable decor included Tiffany-style lamps, a player piano, red-flocked wallpaper, black booths, menus that looked like old newspapers, a vintage candy shop in the front of the restaurant and employees dressed in barbershop quartet clothing.

"The thing I remember most was this sundae they had ... it was actually served in a trough-shaped bowl and was huge. If you could finish it all, you got some kind of award saying 'I made a pig out of myself at Farrell's,'" says Shorewood's Nancy Landre, who went to the Northridge location as a kid.

"The Zoo" -- the sundae served on a stretcher during a birthday party -- is a precious memory stored by scores of Milwaukeeans like Landre. After the lights flickered and an announcement was made that someone was celebrating a birthday, employees dashed out of the kitchen with a seven-pound sundae on a silver stretcher and other employees ran behind them banging drums, blowing whistles and ringing bells. Often they scooped up the birthday child and cruised around the restaurant while singing "Happy Birthday." (The child was either thrilled or horrified depending on his or her personality.)

"'The Zoo' was covered in every topping we had, three bananas, cherries, nuts and had plastic farm animals on top that were later changed to animal crackers because they thought it was a choking hazard," says Jeff Waccholz who worked at the Southridge location for 16 years.

According to Waccholz, a smaller, four-pound sundae called "Pike's Peak" and a mammoth sandwich called "The Gastronomical Delicatessen Epicurean Delight" were also served on a stretcher.

So how many times did Waccholz sing "Happy Birthday" during his decade-and-a-half of Farrell's employment that required him to wear a bandstand hat and red-white-and-blue arm garder?

"About a zillion," he says.

Although kids were particularly enamoured with Farrell's, the old-fangled chains were also popular post-game hangouts for teenagers.

"We didn't allow smoking or screwing around," says Farrell. "We catered to the good kids and they came."

"It didn't matter if you were eight or 80," says Waccholz, 50. "It was a really good time and a wholesome environment. It was the best time of my life, too. I met a lot of girls there."

Two of Waccholz's sisters, and his mother, Joan Waccholz, also worked at the Southridge Farrell's.

"The people were really nice, and it was a very convenient location for me," says Joan Waccholz, who lives in Greendale and worked as a meat slicer for 11 years.

In the late '70s, Bob Farrell and his partner Ken McCarthy sold the chain to the Marriott Corp. who tried to change the focus from ice cream to food. It never caught on, and by the mid-'80s, most of the Farrell's closed. Today, there are two Farrell's left, in Santa Clara and San Diego, Calif., both of which look and taste like the original Farrell's. (And they now serve beer and wine.)

The very first Farrell's opened Sept. 13, 1963 in Portland, Ore. Farrell, who grew up in Brooklyn where there was an ice cream shop on just about every corner, wanted to open a similar business on the West Coast where he was raising his family and felt disappointed by the lack of family-focused restaurants.

Farrell's was a success from the first day it opened.

"We ran out of ice cream and bananas. We bought all of the hamburger the store above us could grind. We cleaned out every hamburger bun, head of lettuce and tomato we could get from area stores," says Farrell.

"I never thought it would be as popular as it was," he says. "People always say how much it meant to them and that it was the bright spot in their day."

Today, Farrell is recognized as one of the leading lecturers on running a successful business with strong customer service. He co-authored a highly praised customer service training video called "Give 'em the Pickle" and still travels the country lecturing on customer service and employee motivation.

"The reason for opening a business is not money. It's to please the customer," he says. "And if you please the customer, the money follows."

Farrell says he remembers the Milwaukee Farrell's very well and that he personally opened both locations.

"Milwaukee's a good town, and we did well there. The entire Midwest was a great market for our business," he says. "Even as I travel through the Midwest today it has the finest family feel in the country. It's more of what America used to be."

Local places like Organ Piper Pizza offer a kid-focused environment, and there are plenty of dining establishments that tolerate children, but many local parents still lament the loss of Farrell's.

"I have tried the fast food joints, like McDonald's, but find them really depressing and hate the food," says Landre, who has a 2-year-old son. "I don't think there is any modern-day equivalent of Farrell's. It's too bad because I'd still go."


OMCreader | Sept. 30, 2006 at 4:45 p.m. (report)

Nicole Ellis said: I grew up in the late 70's and 80's. We had a Farrell's in Southridge Mall and I loved going with my friends or family. Why did Farrell's ever leave Milwaukee? That would be the ultimate experience for my son to enjoy. I wish they would come back to Wisconsin. Thanks for your time.

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