Dining With Denise Neil

Freddy’s at 15: Wichita-based chain worked because it didn’t have to

What if Bill and Randy Simon hadn’t grown up vacationing at the Lake of the Ozarks and fallen in love with a custard stand in Osage Beach?

What if Scott Redler hadn’t grown up in St. Louis and become a devoted fan of steak burgers – the kind that are grilled flat until their edges are crispy?

What if the Simon brothers hadn’t had a dad named Freddy – which sounds so alliteratively perfect with the word “frozen” – and what if Freddy hadn’t been the sweetest, kindest, most people-loving, photogenic World War II veteran you could ever care to meet?

If anything had happened differently, a million people a week in 30 different states might not be enjoying one of the best, most successful restaurants to ever come out of Wichita – a city that also launched Pizza Hut and White Castle.

And all of it has occurred in just 15 dizzying, crazy, explosive years.

Last week, Freddy’s Frozen Custard celebrated the 15th anniversary of the opening of its first store near 21st and Tyler in Wichita. Since that day in August 2002, Freddy’s has grown into a national chain with 271 stores in 30 states serving one million people a week. Its headquarters are still in Wichita, but it has franchised locations in cities as far away as Orlando, San Diego and Philadelphia.

But back in August of 2002, founders Bill Simon, Randy Simon and Scott Redler didn’t envision anything particularly big.

“We never imagined that we’d build more than one,” Redler said. “We just wanted to serve foods that reminded us of our childhoods and growing up.”

And that might be the exact reason that Freddy’s has become the successful company it is today, the owners say.

It all started as an idea between business partners Redler and Bill Simon, who were co-owners of the seven Timberline Steakhouse restaurants, which have sinced closed.

But in 2002, Bill Simon (who died of cancer late last year at age 61) and Redler were successful businessmen looking to branch out. Bill, who had built a career as a vice president of a company that franchised Pizza Hut, Rent-A-Center and other chains, invited Redler to join in a venture that Bill's brother, Randy, had dreamed up. Randy Simon was longtime Pizza Hut and Panera franchisee.

Both Simon brothers brought business sense to the deal, and Redler, whose long restaurant career also had included a stint as vice president of Latour Management, knew food.

Looking back, said Redler, the secret to success might have been that the partners didn’t really need Freddy’s to be successful. They wanted it to be, but if it wasn’t, they were still successful businessmen who weren’t depending on their new project to pay their bills. That meant they were never tempted to cut corners or trim their wish lists.

They craved chewable ice in their sodas, so they put special ice machines in Freddy’s, even though they were more expensive. They wanted a certain kind of beef, a certain brand of hot dog. They wanted the fries to be how they wanted them and the custard to be perfect. And it was.

“The three of us made the decision, and in 15 years, we’ve never downgraded the food or the product,” Redler said. “We thought we made good decisions in the beginning, and we stuck to our guns.”

That plan worked.

The Freddy’s at 21st and Tyler was so successful that the partners were able to open a second store at Central and Rock a year later and followed it with an El Dorado location in 2004. That year, an entrepreneur from Hutchinson expressed interest in franchising Freddy’s, and that worked, too.

By the end of 2007, 20 Freddy’s stores were operating in four states. By 2010, there were 42 Freddy’s. By 2012, the number of Freddy’s rose to 74. When founder Bill Simon died last December, he and his partners had opened 237 stores in 30 states.

Just this month, new Freddy’s stores opened in Clarksville, Tenn., Springfield, Mo., West Columbia, S.C., and Morristown, Tenn.

The next step, Redler said, is to conquer New England.

Burgers, fry sauce and Freddy

In 2017, Freddy’s restaurants across the country are famous for a few things.

Those cheeseburgers with the crispy edges.

That patty melt with the succulent onions.

Those shoestring fries, and the mayo/mustard “fry sauce” (invented by Randy Simon) that become so popular, it’s now sold in bottles in grocery stores.

That thick frozen custard, either chocolate or vanilla, that tastes just as good plain as it does drowned in hot fudge and topped with gummy worms.

And of course, Freddy.

When the Simon brothers and Redler were debating names for their restaurants, Freddy’s was always in the lead.

Not only would it serve as a tribute to the Simons’ father, a World War II vet and Purple Heart winner who grew up on Kansas farm and had a 56-year career working for a wholesale liquor company, but it also sounded good with the word “frozen.” The partners also liked the idea that Freddy grew up during a time when quality and standards were non-negotiable. That’s how they wanted their restaurants to operate.

Freddy Simon, now 92, remembers when they told him.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It was a big moment in my life.”

Since then, he’s become a bona fide celebrity and the face of Freddy’s. Black and white photos that document Freddy’s life, from his childhood on the farm to his military career, hang on the wall of every restaurant. And when Freddy walks in to a store, he’s always surrounded by gasping fans begging him to pose for a photo (which he always happily does.) Every year, Freddy’s stores across the country celebrate their namesake’s birthday with a custard special (it costs as many cents as years old Freddy is turning that year).

Last year on Veteran’s Day, Freddy Simon was the Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight, which aired a touching story about his life.

“I think it really helped being able to have dad serve as our spokesperson and namesake and to bring in the patriotism and the history that he brought with us,” said Randy Simon.

Missing the glue

Losing Bill Simon was a blow to the Freddy’s founding partners, they said.

He was the person who made Redler and his brother business partners, and his absence has been tough.

“He joined us all together,” Randy Simon said. “He was the one I went to, and he was the one who went to Scott. Bill was kind of a common glue, the one that gave us a driving push. We just miss him every day.”

Redler has stepped up to cover some of Bill’s duties, and Randy Simon has taken on new roles, too.

But it’s not the same.

“His contribution was great, and I think all of us have put a lot of effort into it, but it hurts when you pull one leg off the stool out,” Randy Simon said.

Keeping their booming business going provides an all-consuming distraction, though.

Freddy’s employs a large staff at its corporate headquarters, which sits behind the Rock Road Freddy’s, and the chain has about 11,000 employees across the country.

Both founders say that when they think back to August of 2002, they have a hard time believing how much has happened in such a short amount of time.

Their success, they say, shows that Wichita is a town that supports entrepreneurs.

“This has been something you don’t even think you can hope for,” Redler said. “It’s very humbling. It’s a one in 10 million thing, and we want to appreciate it and make sure we keep everything balanced.”

Wichita’s support has been tantamount, Redler said. And the founders love that locals seem proud to say that they live in the hometown of Freddy’s Frozen Custard.

“I think people are proud to see something successful come from their community, and proud to be part of it.”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

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