Monday, February 20, 2012

Friendly Ralph provides historic perspective

My father made a family business out of the restaurant business. This after being in the finance industry under the (stage name) Friendly Ralph. I call it a stage name because, back in the late 60's, he would buy up blocks of TV time at KOMU TV in Columbia MO, and promote his product, Thrifty Finance. The commercials were campy and he often waved around fists full of 100 dollar bills around Christmas time while decending from a cardboard fireplace in a santa suit. If you went and saw Friendly Ralph, you would walk away with fast cash and have a merry Christmas.

It was a finance company, and they did collateral loans in 4-5 locations around Midwestern MO. This was before credit cards and pawn shops. This was the way you got your fast cash. Friendly Ralph had a plane that he flew around from town to town doing his loans.
The TV commercials ran throughout the late 60's and 70's and turned him into a fairly recognizable figure in the community. He later skirted the perimeter of politics here and there, never holding an office, but being fairly influential at times. He was a lobbyist, a statesman, he owned a place called Phil E. Busters later, in Jefferson City, MO, eventually selling out to Bone's, and it is still in operation. The bar business helped with his approach to meeting and influencing those in power, I suppose. The 70’s were an interesting time and Missouri politics had its own set of rules back in the day.

I was thinking about Friendly Ralph, the brand, and I find myself thinking a lot about his approach to doing things.

No bones about it, it was a personal brand. It was really quite genius, to say the least. Proving that the only thing one needs to pull something off like that is the shoulders to walk around in character--and the vehicle to get it out there. In this case, it was early TV. I found several articles in a trunk the other day, receipts and contracts with TV stations buying advertising time. It wasn't expensive back then. There were only two channels, KOMU and KCRG.  He stayed in character.

Being a pitch man has a different kind of existence. He was always Friendly Ralph in the community, and I was always the son of Friendly Ralph, my mom, the wife, my sister the daughter. It put a tremendous amount of pressure on us all.  Yes, we were proud of this because everyone knew him. I wouldn't understand, entirely, the importance of his style of promotion; his ability to broadcast a personal brand, until later in life. Some might say the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. I wonder how one would explain social media to those flipping channels back in the day on a black and white TV.  In that perspective, one might wonder what is next for those looking for the cutting edge.  What hasn't changed is the need to have personality behind the pitch, authenticity, relevency.

I stopped in a restaurant in Columbia not long ago, Jack's Gourmet. Owner Ken Applegate purchased the restaurant from my father and his partner Bill Bratrud long ago. While there, Ken asked if I could offer up any memorabilia for their 40th anniversary. They had collected some things from back in the day and displayed them in the bar. Back in the day, before the fire, the bar evolved to a 70's art deco gallery of sorts, a "disco joint" with cheesy dancing from a DJ booth and 45 record spins. Jack's and my fathers other restaurant, 2100 West, were the first Disco's in the area and it was Superfly, Love American Style, leisure suit and Playboy wannabee's just about every Friday and Saturday night. I am not sure anyone would really want to have their images out there.

So it was after Thrifty Finance that Friendly Ralph jumped in to the restaurant business and opened 4-5 quick serve restaurants called Ku Ku Burger. Ku Ku Burger had the first outdoor playground built to attract kids, featuring the "Tornado slide". I boast Friendly Ralph's early innovations as being the first to provide a playground at the front of the burger joint, yes, before McDonalds, which was in its infancy. Friendly Ralph later sold the restaurants to Sandy's which later became Hardees’s restaurants. He got in to the full service restaurant mode and rode out his career doing things in contract food service and later retired at the Lake of the Ozarks.

So enjoy a couple images from Jack's. When I get time I will take them down to Ken Applegate, he will surely be retired soon. Hopefully this will help keep the memories intact. Friendly Ralph, well, his legacy is alive and well, re-incarnated as would be expected ifyouknowhatimtalkinbout.

  *The two art deco paintings are my favorites.  The one of the woman, is actually a man in drag, note the large hand the the artists use of contrast, dark glasses.  The black and white painting was in our family room and has been in my family since 1970.
*The photo of Ku Ku is one of the last remaining Ku Ku restuarants.  When my father franchised his restuarants, shortly after he opened them the corporate office went belly up, leaving the franchisees to do what they pleased.  I am so happy one still remains in existence in Oklahoma.

1 comment:

herekittykitty said...

Thanks for the post bro, quite eloquent. For all of you that know us, Ralph and I, and knew our father Ralph you know how we came to be the people we are now. For those of you that dont, this is a unique insight. What a personality he was in his day.I am proud to be his daughter, and I am proud of my brother as well.