After opening its first ice cream parlor in Portland, Oregon in 1963, Farrell’s quickly became a staple of American childhood dreams and treats. How could it be otherwise since the parlors gave kids a free ice cream sundae if it was their birthday? But sadly, the very last Farrell’s, in Brea, California, closed its doors forever in 2019. And the story of the ice cream chain’s final demise does not make pretty reading.
The staff at a Farrell’s Ice Cream parlor were always ready to give its customers an unforgettable experience. The restaurant had a late-19th-century theme with waiters dressed in straw boaters and liable to burst into song at the drop of a hat. It certainly wasn’t the place for a quiet evening out with frequent train whistle blasts and choruses of “Happy Birthday.” But kids loved it.
Then there was the fabled ice cream of excess: “The Portland Zoo.” This was a plate of ice cream was so large – more than 30 scoops according to legend – that it was trundled to the table aboard a gurney. All the toppings, fruit and miniature zoo animals completed this exuberant feast of extravagance.
We’ll get on to the nigh-on 60-year story of Farrell’s in a moment. But first let’s learn a little more about the unchallenged star of the show: ice cream. The origins of the sweet, creamy delicacy are difficult to be sure of. But it seems that the Chinese had something that we might recognize as ice cream hundreds of years ago.
The sweet-tooth Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled the country from 618 to 907, used the milk of buffaloes, goats or cows to make their version of ice cream. The milk was mixed with flour, and camphor, an aromatic, was added for flavor. The resulting concoction was poured into metal tubes and thrust into icy water. How much the modern palate would enjoy that recipe is open to question.
Fast-forward to 1686, and we’re probably getting closer to our contemporary idea of ice cream. In that year, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a Sicilian by birth and a chef by trade, turned up in Paris, France, where he opened the city’s first establishment to go by the name of “café.” Il Procope, as it was called, served gelato, an Italian-style sorbet.
In fact, so popular was the Procope café that it became something of a hangout for the celebrities and leading lights of the day. Everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Jefferson to Napoleon Bonaparte and Oscar Wilde visited Coltelli’s Paris establishment to sample his sorbets, coffee and highbrow conversation.
So China and France were ice cream pioneers. But when did the delicious cold stuff reach America’s shores? Well it seems that the nation’s very first ice cream establishment was likely opened by a man called Philip Lenzi. He was a confectioner from London, England, and sold ice cream in New York City from the mid-1770s. We know that because of an advertisement he placed in a May 1777 edition of The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.
Lenzi’s premises were apparently in Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, an address that still exists. In his advertisement, he notes that he “[t]akes this method to return his sincere thanks to all his friends and customers for their past favors, and hopes for a continuance.” He also mentions that, “May be had every day, ice cream.” Lenzi’s ad goes on to solicit for an apprentice, so his business was presumably prospering.
Further evidence for the popularity of ice cream in the latter part of the 18th century comes, perhaps surprisingly, from an American president, none other than George Washington. A New York trader based in Chatham Street recorded in 1790 that Washington had splurged some $200 during the summer months, well over $5,000 in today’s money.
So it seems that ice cream was still an expensive luxury reserved for the well-to-do back at the tail-end of the 18th century. But by the middle of the 19th century, ice cream making had become industrialized. C. Jacob Fussell, a Quaker and milk magnate, opened the first ice cream factory in Baltimore in 1851, earning himself the title of “Father of the Ice Cream Industry.”
The oldest ice cream parlor still scooping the cold stuff for customers is reputed to be Bassett’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia. It dates right back to 1861 when Lewis Dubois Bassett, a Quaker and a teacher, opened the original parlor. Today it’s located in Reading Terminal Market where it’s been serving ice cream since 1892.
So by the late 19th century, ice cream and ice cream parlors had been brought to the American masses, and the only thing lacking now was a national network of ice cream parlors. In fact, it was the 20th century before such institutions really took off. Dairy Queen, for example, opened its first outlet in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois. Among other delights, that parlor sold the ever-popular soft serve ice cream.
Baskin-Robbins got going in 1953 when Irv Robbins and Burt Baskin merged their separate businesses. And our chain, Farrell’s, came along a decade later with the opening of its first branch on Portland, Oregon’s NW 21st Avenue. Business partners Bob Farrell and Ken McCarthy opened that original Farrell’s in 1963.
Kenneth Everett McCarthy was born in 1921 in Neihart, Montana. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, graduated from Franklin High School in 1939 and went on to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. World War II intervened, and he served as a teacher of Morse code. After the war, he went back to the railroad company.
In 1950 McCarthy took a change of direction when he went to work for Carnation Dairy. As we’ve seen, McCarthy and his partner opened the first Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in 1963. In fact, McCarthy stayed with Carnation until 1964, but as the new ice cream business took off, it became his full-time occupation until he retired in 1970. McCarthy died in 2013 at the age of 92.
Robert E. “Bob” Farrell was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. Tragically, badly affected by the great stocks and shares crash of 1929, his father killed himself. Finding life on her own insupportable, his mother put Farrell and his sister into the care of Christian orphanage. The family was later reunited after the mother remarried.
Farrell didn’t graduate from high school, opting instead to join the Air Force in 1945. After gaining a high-school equivalency and a business degree, Farrell started his career in the food industry with Heinz. A year later, he went to work for canned food company Libby. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Farrell’s wife Ramona remembered what had inspired him to open an ice cream parlor in 1963.
Ramona recalled, “He remembered a place called Jahn’s ice cream from when he was growing up in New York. There was nothing out here like that.” Jahn’s was a venerable ice cream institution with 30 branches around New York. Founded in 1897, sadly there’s now only one branch located in Queens.
Jahn’s is remembered for its “Kitchen Sink,” an ice cream extravaganza reputedly capable of satisfying eight people. Speaking to the Queens Chronicle in November 2019 Queens’ resident Cecilia Vaicels remembered Jahn’s in its heyday. “You could order the kitchen sink. They had black-and-white tile floors… tin ceilings, molded and put up in sheets. It was like stepping back in time.”
Given Vaicels’ memories of the olde worlde charm of Jahn’s, it’s hardly surprising that it was this establishment, which inspired Farrell to open his retro ice cream parlor. His new business was tricked out like a parlor form the late 19th or early 20th century. And, what’s more, it seems that Farrell had hit upon a lucrative idea. His first parlor was successful from the start.
Evidence of the popularity of the concept that Farrell and Everett came up with soon showed up in the increasing number of parlors. By 1970, just seven years after the first opening, there were 58 Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours. And the restaurants seemed to prove that you can’t get too loud or too gaudy – at least when it comes to children and their doting parents.
Earlier, we touched on the menu item called the Portland Zoo – which later became the Farrell’s Zoo. But it’s worth taking a closer look at this extraordinary phenomenon because in many ways it epitomized exactly what the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours were all about. In a 2015 article, the Statesman Journal paid tribute to the Farrell’s Zoo.
According to the Statesman Journal, the Farrell’s Zoo was preceded by an announcement, delivered in the manner of fairground barker. “Ladies and gentlemen may I have your attention please,” a server would cry. “Right here from the frosty fingertips of Farrell’s fantastic fountain is the largest sundae in all the world.”
The staff member would then outline the contents of the gigantic sundae. “Now this sundae has eight-and-a-half pounds of ice cream, gobs and gobs of whip cream, bananas, nuts and cherries. Why you name it, it’s got it in it. It’s called our Farrell’s Zoo and it takes two strong men to carry it.”
This concoction would be paraded around the restaurant to the accompaniment of jangling bells and wailing sirens until it reached the table of its excited recipients. This outlandish dessert cannot seem to be anything other than an extraordinary indulgence in our more austere times of veganism and sugar avoidance.
Starting from the bottom, the Farrell’s Zoo had a layer of chocolate, strawberry, peppermint vanilla, chocolate chip mint, strawberry, spumoni and peppermint ice creams. Layered above this were servings of lemon sherbet, orange, raspberry and more vanilla. A sweet soup of toppings – butterscotch, chocolate, pineapple, blackberry and strawberry – were then poured on. Finally came three sliced bananas, whipped cream, cherries and toasted almonds.
In the 1960s, children loved these types of desserts and it seems that their parents were happy to let their offspring eat them, on special occasions at least. And one of America’s larger companies had noticed the success of the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlors. In 1971, the Marriott Corporation contacted Farrell. It was interested in buying.
The purchase went ahead. As we’ve seen, Everett had left Farrell’s in 1970, but after Marriott’s acquisition of the company, Farrell himself stayed on. And with him still involved in the enterprise, success continued unabated. There were soon some 130 branches of Farrell’s serving ice cream to an enthusiastic American public.
It’s been said that as long as Farrell stayed with the company, not a single restaurant ever had to close. He was certainly a man that never shied away from a publicity stunt. In 1974, for example, he tried to beat his own Guinness Book of Records entry for the largest sundae, which stood at 1,551 pounds. Unfortunately, his effort had collapsed when it reached a weight of 1,675 pounds, nullifying the record.
But eventually, in 1985 Farrell did leave the company that he’d founded and expanded over the years. Not long afterwards, Marriott sold its interest in the company to an investor’s conglomerate based in San Francisco. Farrell’s founder now turned his hand to motivational speaking, an enterprise in which he enjoyed some success.
But it seemed that in the absence of Farrell, these old-time celebration restaurants lost their sparkle. The new owners changed the direction of the business, opting for a more orthodox family dining model. Within five years of the investment group takeover, most of the locations were shuttered, and Marriott regained ownership of the name.
After a few branches lingered on, in 2006 the last of the original Farrell’s closed down. That was the branch in Eugene, Oregon, which had actually ended its days operating as the Pearl Street Ice Cream Parlor. However, in 2009 a company called Parlour Enterprises tried to revive the brand with Farrell himself acting as an adviser.
The reborn Farrell’s opened eight branches in southern California, plus one in Hawaii. More branches subsequently opened in Hawaii, but by 2016 Farrell’s was in serious financial trouble. In that year, entrepreneur and presenter of the CBNC TV show The Profit Marcus Lemonis made an agreement with Parlour Enterprises to try and revive the ailing brand. In exchange, Lemonis took a 51 percent share in the company.
At that point, Parlour was running several California restaurants, which were grossing some $17 million a year. Under the terms of the deal, Lemonis was to take on an advisory role and the day-to-day running of the business would be down to Parlour chief executive Mike Fleming and the company’s finance officer Paul Kramer.
But things seem to have gone awry quickly. The Farrell’s location bringing in the most revenue, $4 million a year, closed due to rent arrears. And it seems that relations between Lemonis and the two Parlour executives soon soured. Speaking to the CNBC website in 2018, Lemonis aired his obvious frustrations.
Lemonis told the TV station, “I got basically a big F.U., and I have to decide whether I just want to cut my losses and move on because I don’t want to throw good money after a bad situation. I normally am the easiest guy to persuade with a good story, but the story here isn’t a good one: negligence and mismanagement of funds.”
It wasn’t long before Kramer and Fleming were off the scene. By that time Lemonis had lost $1 million on the deal. That left one of the restaurant managers, Travis Lee, to take on the position of director of operations for the company with Lemonis’ blessings. In fact he gave Lee something much more tangible than mere good wishes: Lemonis paid him a $50,000 bonus. By now there was just one restaurant with Lemonis’ involvement, the one in Buena Park, California.
When Lemonis gave Lee the check, he told him, “You have not only earned my trust but you have earned my respect. You don’t work for Farrell’s, you’re my partner at Farrell’s.” But despite all this goodwill, Lee’s hard work and publicity from Lemonis’ TV show, that branch of Farrell’s, in Buena Park, closed in December 2018. There was one last branch, owned by others, in Brea, California. But that too closed in June 2019.
Poor management from the outset of the attempted revival by Lemonis, and a failure to follow the business guru’s instructions, had done for Farrell’s. But there was another factor. As Lemonis told the Orange County Register in January 2019, “Everybody loved Farrell’s but nobody wanted to go back there. There’s a nostalgia customers love, but to survive, they had to patronize it.” So it turned out that fond memories alone were not enough to revive the failing business.