HoJo’s Last Stand
“Howard Johnson’s, Host of the Highways!” That was my cringe-worthy phone greeting when I worked as a teenage hostess at the company’s Valley Forge restaurant on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. All is forgiven now that I heard HoJo’s will be closing its Bangor, Maine restaurant on September 7th, leaving only one standing in Lake George, NY.
Howard Deering Johnson, the chain’s namesake and founder, was the brains behind the first modern restaurant franchise, the first turnpike restaurant in the U. S., and the pioneer of the convenience food concept of processing and portioning food at off-site kitchens and shipping it to restaurants for prepping and cooking.
By 1975, the company had more than1000 company-owned and franchised outlets in the United States and some 500 motor lodges in North America.
Not a bad legacy for a once struggling 27-year old who in 1925 was saddled with his late father’s business debts and a $500 loan he used to take over a “patent medicine store” with a soda fountain and newsstand in Quincy, Massachusetts.
The man was a survivor and a marketing genius, with one finger always in the air, testing the winds of change and consumer tastes.
His soda fountain originally sold three flavors of ice cream – vanilla, chocolate and strawberry – but he understood the American consumer’s birthright for “more and better” and began cranking out his own natural ice cream with double the butterfat in the store’s basement. The customer lines soon circled the block.
The ice cream menu would eventually include 28 different flavors.
Johnson expanded the business by selling ice cream at the beach and other traffic heavy areas around town, and converted his store into a restaurant adding hamburgers and hot dogs to the menu.
But the stock market crash of 1929 put the skids on his plan to open a second restaurant.
So that’s when he came up with the brilliant idea for franchising, basically selling the “Howard Johnson” name to another businessman for a fee, and having him agree to purchase all his food and supplies from the company.
Howard Johnson also saw opportunity in the Interstate Highway system. Americans loved to travel the open road and HoJo’s was going to feed them along the way. In the 1960’s, Howard Johnson restaurants could be found from coast-to-coast and by 1965, their sales exceeded the combined revenues of McDonald’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
(By the time I worked at the Valley Forge Turnpike restaurant, we absolutely dreaded the invasion of touring “bus groups.” One cannot begin to describe the state of the restrooms after the masses departed. My boss asked me once -- just once -- to clean the trashed Ladies Room when I was working in the restaurant gift shop. I reminded him that my job description didn’t include janitorial services, especially since he was paying me 5 cents an hour below the minimum wage...)
But back to our more illustrious founder: Howard Johnson instinctively knew how to differentiate his restaurants, and eventually his motor lodges -- from the iconic architecture by 20th century modernist Rufus Nims, who designed the orange roofs, cupolas and weather vanes that became part of the American landscape, to the restaurant’s Simple Simon and the Pieman logo created in the 1930’s by the artist John Alcott.
So how is it that we’re left with only one Howard Johnson’s restaurant some 90 years later?
The usual suspects: New competition. Numerous owners. A brand in desperate need of a refresh (and probably cleaner restrooms).