Los Angeles Daily News

August 13, 2005

Blasts from the past

Businesses today hope recycling old icons will attract customers

By Evan Pondel, Staff Writer

Ed Bilow fondly recalls eating a "pig trough" at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor long before the chain faded away in the 1980s.

"I even got a ribbon for making a pig of myself," laughed Bilow, 50, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and frequented Farrell's when he was in high school. "It's sad to see how it was then and how it is now."

What Bilow doesn't realize is that Farrell's and its pig trough -- the equivalent of two banana splits -- made a comeback almost five years ago, opening a store in Santa Clarita. And while Farrell's presence today isn't nearly as robust as it was a couple of decades ago, the ice cream parlor's name still conjures nostalgia.

When big brand names disappear, as department store chain Robinsons-May will after the first of the year following its acquisition by Macy's, other iconic names of the past stream past the mind's eye.

It's that very sentiment that some businesses are counting on for future success. In the last decade, several companies, like Farrell's, have purchased the rights to fallen names with the intent of generating some recognition and sparking nostalgia among former customers.

Security Pacific Bank is among the more recent iconic names to return to Southern California's landscape. The Ontario-based bank is not the same Security Pacific that merged with Bank of America in the early 1990s. The new Security Pacific is mostly a commercial bank that loans money to small and midsize businesses.

"We're hoping to utilize our name to make our own imprint by serving businesses," said Mark Jaques, chief operating officer of the bank, which had total assets of about $306.6 million in 2004, compared with $216.9 million in 2003. "The name will hopefully open us up to a broader market. So far the reaction has been positive."

Of the hundreds of businesses that once existed in Southern California, many consumers can vividly recall the department stores they visited with their mothers or the fast-food restaurants that served as a quick fix for dinner. Names like Bullocks and Pup 'n' Taco come to mind.

"And resurrecting these names help people reconnect with a simpler time. That appeal is a lot stronger now," said Andy Valvur, a senior brand strategist at Igor, a naming and branding agency in San Francisco. "It's all about bringing positive images back from childhood."

Howard Schlossberg, 42, can certainly relate. The computer programmer recently found himself reminiscing about Gemco, a Target-esque chain that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. Schlossberg worked in the retailer's sporting goods department and is now organizing a 25th anniversary get-together for the Northridge store this fall.

"Gemco was more than a job for me. People at that store were like family to me," said Schlossberg, who also noted that few of the retailers he shops at today offer the personal touch of his beloved Gemco. "The thing is I don't think a Gemco would survive in today's environment."

In the increasingly competitive world of retail, cost cutting measures continue to thwart even the most venerable of names. Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc. recently announced plans to convert 330 Robinsons-May stores to its Macy's nameplate next year as part of a broader consolidation plan.

The move is not a function of a disloyal customer base. Instead, retail analysts say many iconic department stores failed to keep up with changing tastes. "They presented themselves as above the competition and forgot that the customer was growing up and the customers' needs were beginning to change," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Forecasting in Nutley, N.J. "If you looked at the average age of customers at some of these stores you'd see that everyone was 50."

But some industries adapt more easily to changing times. And resurrecting a fallen name could deliver powerful results with a little kitsch. Atari brought back its classic game consoles in recent years and the faux wood and rubbery joysticks could once again be enjoyed. Even Napster, which garnered notoriety as purveyor of free music in the 1990s, is now publicly traded on the Nasdaq market.

"You're probably looking at these names, wanting to know why any of them were resurrected. You look at them and say, 'They all failed,"' Valvur said. "But I think it's like old relationships and when you hear their names you selectively remember only the good times."

So it's easy to understand why Carvel decided to sell ice cream after a 25-year hiatus. The decades-old brand that started in the Northeast returned to California a year ago with plans to open nearly 30 stores across the state.

"We realized there was almost a cultlike following of the brand," said Jennifer McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Carvel, which is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Focus Brands. "And a lot of New York transplants in California were interested in our return."

Carvel has plans to open at least three Southern California stores in the coming months.

Perhaps ice cream is one of those products that retains its reputation even if its purveyor goes bankrupt. Michael Fleming tracked ice cream chain Farrell's long after Bob Farrell started the company in the 1960s. After changing ownership several times, Farrell's ultimately filed for bankruptcy protection.

Despite the troubled times, "few people had anything negative to say about the chain. In fact, it was all positive," said Fleming, who approached the owner of the Farrell's name in 2001 with the idea of resurrecting the ice cream parlor.

Fleming eventually opened the parlor in Santa Clarita, "and we find people coming in here all the time to reminisce about the ice cream," Fleming said. "I even met with Bob Farrell before opening the place to get his blessing."

Of course, there are other resurrected businesses that do not receive the blessing of former owners. In 1996, the airline formerly known as Pan Am resurfaced as Pan Am Clipper Connection. The new company still maintains the iconic blue globe insignia, but its fleet size of three operable airplanes is far from its wingspan five decades ago.

"Obviously everyone recognizes our name. And there's a connotation of quality," said Alexander Mouzas, director of marketing for Pan Am, a subsidiary of Boston-Maine. The airline operates flights between New Hampshire and Florida. "And we have a lot of plans for growth moving forward," Mouzas said.

But that growth could be stunted. The U.S. Department of Transportation has launched a full-scale review of the airline's management after reports surfaced last week that the company allegedly filed false financial statements.

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