TGI Friday’s was one of the first American casual dining chains to expand overseas.
Alan Stillman, a perfume salesman, established TGI Friday’s on the east side of Manhattan in 1965. At a time when New York pubs and bars were aimed at men, Stillman made his bar brighter, cleaner and more domestic in order to make it more attractive to women. Stillman recalled, “there were really no good places for singles to hang out. No places where a single girl felt comfortable going into a bar area.” The venue quickly developed a reputation as a singles bar, popular with airline stewardesses and junior executives.
Stillman also pushed the food offering, with large portions at reasonable prices. In the first full year the 60 cover venue took over $500,000.
Stillman soon opened more outlets across New York City.
The flamboyant bartenders became the direct inspiration for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), which was filmed in the original Friday’s.
Franchise outlets were opened in the Midwest. The Dallas branch became the most successful restaurant in the chain, with annual sales of $2 million by 1972.
TGI Friday’s became the first chain of themed casual dining restaurants. The restaurant claims to have invented loaded potato skins in 1974, and helped to popularise nachos. From the mid-1980s the business was repositioned from a singles bars to a restaurant.
Whitbread establishes the franchise in Britain
Whitbread had established the Beefeater restaurant chain in Britain in 1974. Eager to replicate its success, Whitbread experimented with a number of new restaurant concepts in the 1980s. A 50 percent stake in the British franchise for Pizza Hut was to prove highly successful from 1982. The franchise for Quick, a Belgian fast food chain, was acquired, but the concept failed.
Whitbread opened the first TGI Friday’s in Britain in Birmingham in 1986. A former Wendy’s in Covent Garden, London was converted in 1987. The site enjoyed a £1 million makeover, and was an exact replica of the American model. By the end of the 1980s further outlets had been established at Fareham, Reading and Cardiff.
The chain was an instant success in Britain. Whitbread had insight into the mindset of the British public, and knowledge of the property market.
The Covent Garden site was the busiest TGI Friday’s in the world by 1992, and reputedly the busiest restaurant in Europe. In one week, its 260 seats yielded a turnover of £180,000.
There were 12 sites in Britain by 1993, and the average annual turnover was £2.5 million. According to Sally Dibb and Lyndon Simkin, Friday’s altered the UK dining scene “beyond recognition” due to its vitality, enthusiasm and tight quality control standards. The company hired staff with extrovert personalities, and the restaurants provided a theatrical experience. From the beginning, TGI Friday’s was an early example of a company that tried to be “nice”, to treat its employees fairly and to be a good corporate citizen.
The chain grew to 41 outlets by 2004. At this time, Whitbread indicated that it would divest the business if profits failed to improve. Sales remained disappointing throughout 2005. Whitbread felt that they had grown the chain as much as they could, and sold the chain to the American parent company, Carlson, for £70.4 million in 2007.
Electra Private Equity acquired the business for £99 million in 2014. Electra spun off TGI Friday’s as Hostmore, a listed company, in 2021.