Restaurants of YesterYear - Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Motor Lodge

Monday, February 14, 2022

Like many Americans, travel is in my genetic makeup.  It's in our blood.  Americans come from pioneers who pushed boundaries into the wild west, explored new horizons, and experienced new things.  

I love all traveling: road trips, train travel, cruise ships, and of course, airplanes. 

I firmly believe there is something truly American about an old fashion road trip.  Europe might be known for "backpacking" trips across the continent, but we set out in cars here in America to see the country.  Eating at mom and pop diners or spending the night in a roadside motel is a right of passage... or it should be, in my opinion, anyway.

Growing up, the best parts of our vacation, for me, were often the plane ride and the hotel!  One day, after getting back from Florida, my Mom was talking to another mother while we waited for the school bus.  She mentioned all I cared about were the plane, hotel, and rental car!  She jokingly said that she shouldn't have taken us to Disney and instead saved a lot of money just booking a room at the hotel down the road.  That comment always stuck with me, and while she was only joking, there was some truth to it!   I DID like the hotel better!


Don't get me wrong, I loved our trips to Disney World (still do!), but sometimes what I genuinely enjoy most is the hotel stay.  

I can remember every trip and each hotel we stayed in growing up.  As a kid, I collected the free paraphernalia from the room, and until around college, I had a giant bin of soaps, shampoo bottles, pens, and notepads from hotels around the country.  

I remember well one such trip occurred when we all headed up to the Boston area for a cousin's wedding.  After the wedding was over, we drove into the city proper to spend a day or two sightseeing.  Boston is a great walking city, and you can see much of the city in only a day.  We had a memorable time on the hop-on/hop-off trolly, but true to fashion, what I remember most about was the hotel.

We stayed at a Howard Johnson's.  

After a bit of research, I've come to find out we stayed at the somewhat famous "Boston Park Plaza 57 - Howard Johnson's." This was the trip that not only did I learn that most high-rise buildings superstitiously skip the "13th floor," but my family gained a story we sometimes retell when we're all together.  We walked down the street to a Bennigan's for dinner on our first night.  The waiter barely got out "Hi, I'm Mark, and I'll be your waiter..." before he dumped a tray full of drinks on my poor brother's lap.  We stayed a night or two at the hotel, and I remember that it wasn't anything special.  It was a little old and dated but clean.  Before heading home at the end of our trip, we ate lunch at the Howard Johnson's restaurant in the lobby.  I remember that it was busy, and the way I picture it in my head now reminds me of a diner with tablecloths.  I also remember a large wooden lattice arch as you entered the room for some reason.  Funny what the things that stick out in your mind end up being.

My only other experience with Howard Johnson's was driving home after completing two months of training at my first airline.  I had very little sleep the night before my big final flight simulator test, and after a long day, I left Cincinnati for Long Island just as the sun was setting.  I had hoped to drive through the night and get to my apartment by sun up, but somewhere after leaving West Virginia, I could hardly keep my eyes open any longer.  I pulled off the highway at the first billboard I saw.  It was a Howard Johnson's, and I thought, "That's a recognizable brand.  How bad could it be?"


I checked in and was immediately skeeved out by the room.  So much so that I put the bath towels on the bed before laying down.  I should have left, but it was one in the morning.  I was dead tired, and I had already paid for the night and was too broke to lose the money.  The place offered some type of breakfast, but I wasn't going to stick around after staying in that room for only a few hours.  I woke up early and hit up a gas station for snacks before making a bee-line for New York.  

While I'm filing this under my "Restaurant of YesterYear" series, this story could just as easily fit into the coming Motels of YesterYear collection too.  It'll eventually end up there.

Warning, this is a long one.  I do think it's a fun story, and hopefully, like me, you learn some cool things about this company from the past.  Or, perhaps even more in line with the purpose of this site, you sit back and go, "Huh, I haven't thought about that in years!"

Dive back in time with me, won't you, as we take a deep look at the history of Howard Johnson's. 

Good food and good lodging are akin to finding an oasis in the desert to many road-weary travelers.   In America's road trip heydey, Howard Johnson's was just that.  Reliably good food and clean and comfortable lodging were guaranteed when travelers saw a Howard Johnson's trademark orange roof. 
 

Nostalgic interest in HoJo's recently peaked again after many years, following a 2012 episode of the hit television show "Mad Men." On the show, advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his wife are sent to Plattsburgh, New York, to get a better sense of the business atmosphere of the potential client Howard Johnson's Company.  The bright orange-roofed restaurant, made famous for fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, resonated with many viewers who remembered the restaurant from their childhood.  Many viewers left comments on social media saying that just seeing the orange roof and the HoJo name reminded them of childhood summer road trips with stops at a Howard Johnson's for breakfast, casual dining, or ice cream treats.  


Unlike companies like Betty Crocker or Mrs. Butterworth, the Howard Johnson's empire was named after a real person:  Howard Deering Johnson.  

Howard Deering Johnson was born in Boston in 1897 and dropped out of grammar school to work as a salesman for his father's cigar business.  After returning home from World War I, he continued working at his father's business, but the cigar business suffered as more people switched to cheaper cigarettes.  When his dad passed away in 1921, the 24-year-old inherited the company, along with a vast debt that shuttered the business three years later.  


In 1925, he borrowed $2,000 and purchased a small corner pharmacy in Wollaston, Massachusetts, that sold candy, newspapers, and medicine.  After a year or two, the previous owner died, and the family allowed Johnson to purchase the company.  He promptly renamed the pharmacy "Howard D. Johnson Co. Patent Medicines and Toilet Articles" but soon realized that the soda fountain was the busiest part of his new store.  This led to a new idea and a rebranding to focus on ice cream.  

Ice cream wasn't exactly a new idea.  Still, he did purchase a "special" recipe from a retiring German ice cream cart vendor that included the "secret" ingredient of doubling the butterfat content.  Through the remaining summers of the 1920s, Johnson would open concession stands on the beachfront property along coastal Massachusetts.  Each stand was quite successful for selling soft drinks, hot dogs, and his "secret recipe" ice cream.  It's reported he sold $60,000 worth of ice cream cones his first summer ($961,000 adjusted for inflation in 2022), and in 1928, gross sales of just ice cream exceeded $240,000 ($3.9 million in 2022). 

Johnson added additional flavors - 28 in all - as well as increasingly popular "Frankforts," a premium hot dog Howard developed himself by grilling them in butter, served in a buttered and toasted roll.  He would eventually, years later, go on to help create the popular "New England Style" hot dog bun, split in half at the top rather than the side.  

For those curious, the original 28 ice cream flavors were:  Banana, Black Raspberry, Burgundy Cherry, Butter Pecan, Buttercrunch, Butterscotch, Caramel Fudge, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Coconut, Coffee, Frozen Pudding, Fruit Salad, Fudge Ripple, Lemon Stick, Macaroon, Maple Walnut, Mocha Chip, Orange-Pineapple, Peach, Peanut Brittle, Pecan Brittle, Peppermint Stick, Pineapple, Pistachio, Strawberry, Strawberry Ripple, Vanilla. 

After several years of such success, in 1928, Johnson convinced local bankers to lend him the funds to operate a sit-down restaurant.  Soon, the first Howard Johnson's restaurant opened in Quincy, Massachusetts, featuring fried clams, baked beans, chicken pot pies, frankfurters, and ice cream.

Interestingly, his first location received a tremendous boost in 1929 due to an unusual set of circumstances.  Malcolm Nichols, then the Mayor of Boston, banned a play by Eugene O'Neill called Strange Interlude for controversial content.  Rather than fight city hall, the production moved to nearby Quincy.  The five-hour play was presented with a dinner break in the middle.  Luckily, right near the theater was Howard Johnson's restaurant.  Thousands of influential and affluent theatergoers flocked to the restaurant during intermission, and through word of mouth, the restaurant earned even more popularity and business.

In 1935, Howard sought to expand, but after suffering through the Great Depression, he couldn't afford to do so.  However, Mr. Johnson was undeterred and convinced a relative to do it for him instead.   

By the following summer, there were four franchised restaurants, all called "Howard Johnson's," and 13 small Johnson-owned roadside stands in the process of being converted to sit-down restaurants.  By the end of 1936, 39 more locations had opened.


The concept caught on, and in 1939, he expanded to 130 locations on the east coast of the United States.  Records show that the company made a profit of $207,000 that year, and adjusted for inflation, would be $4.2 million in today's money.  That same year, Mr. Johnson purchased the Wayland Red Coach Grill, a popular Boston steakhouse, and converted it into an upscale steakhouse chain.  He dropped the "Wayland" from the title and grew a new network of steakhouses called Red Coach Grills.  While the Red Coach Grill saw moderate success at 32 locations, the last 15 restaurants were sold in 1983 and quickly closed.  

As World War II raged on, war rationing took its toll on the business, and many locations were forced to close.  By the summer of 1944, the near 200 location company had fallen to just 12.  They shifted the restaurants into operating cafeterias for war plant workers and new Army recruits to stay in business.

Undeterred, Johnson pressed on with his business plans.  After the war, many Americans had access to new affordable cars, and Johnson foresaw that the growing popularity of the automobile would soon send millions of Americans out on the open road.  As part of the economic recovery, Americans began to use them for business or leisure travel on the new arteries built around the nation, like those made under the Interstate Highway Act.  

Johnson wisely paid attention to the rapid rise in the ease and popularity of motor travel, and as a result, began positioning his restaurants alongside the new highways.   Smartly, he secured a deal to be the restaurant of choice for all new service plazas along the soon-to-open Pennsylvania Turnpike.  His 24 restaurants across Pennsylvania held a monopoly along the Turnpike that lasted until 1979.  


Later, he'd earn the exclusive rights to serve drivers on the newly created Turnpikes in states like Connecticut, Maine, Ohio, New Jersey Turnpikes, and others. 

After the success of his Pennsylvania expansion, Howard began buying land around exit ramps of the new highways being built around the country.  There, he'd be front and center for capitalizing on the hungry road travelers looking for a good meal. 


Much like McDonald's uses the Golden Arches as a recognizable symbol to be seen from a distance, Johnson used a staff of 27 architects to ensure that the Howard Johnson's were easily distinguishable from the road.  Travelers wouldn't often need directions once getting off America's new highways as this familiar design acted as a beacon to the hungry and road-weary. 

Bright orange porcelain roof tiles topped each building after testing determined they were the best shade of color for attracting a motorist's attention.  In addition, the designers added a blue New England style cupola and weathervane as a signature touch.  A cupola is a hollow frame, similar to a New England-style church steeple, that protrudes from the roof of a building.  

You'd find Formica tabletops and curtained dining areas inside these restaurants that gave the eatery a homey feel.  Famous socialite Dorothy May Parish (best known as Sister Parish) began her decorating business in the 1930s, and Johnson soon hired her to design his new restaurants.  After a trial run in the Somerville, New Jersey location, Sister Parish became responsible for Howard Johnson's iconic use of the color aquamarine.  She once told the New York Times, "I dressed the waitresses in aqua, did the walls in aqua, I made the placemats in aqua.  I guess I must have thought it was quite chic, but I haven't done a thing in aqua since."


The original logo, titled "Simple Simon and the Pie Man," depicted a child and his dog looking excited about a baker's delivery.  This design was commissioned by Johnson to further push his notion that every restaurant, unlike many diners or greasy spoon restaurants along the highway, should be family-friendly.  The image would appear on neon lights, menus, and dinnerwear.  The design of the building and logo was well-liked by consumers and franchisees alike and created an atmosphere that lent itself to a very successful business.

The 28 flavor selection of ice cream and price-sensitive meals made it possible to lure families through the front door.  The company ran some new child-friendly promotions, a relatively new concept, such as a birthday club.  Children would be able to redeem a coupon card for a free meal, cake, and balloons on their birthday while the rest of the family paid full price.


In addition to child-friendly foods at lower prices, the restaurant also made fun placemats or menus a nationwide concept.  Placemats and paper menus featured space to be colored or drawn on while including puzzles, maps, or interesting trivia.  One popular promotion ran for several years around Halloween, where children could take their menu home and, with scissors and string, turn it into a Halloween mask.  


The chain also held contests for adults to get their repeat business.  The next ice cream cone was free if a person submitted proof of sampling all 28 flavors through a stamped check-off card.  Trivia, raffles, and other contests were also held.

The typical menu was what Johnson once referred to as a "carnivore's delight." It featured charcoal-broiled versions of chicken or sirloin beef steaks, tenderloin steak sandwiches, cube steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, and even ham and egg dinners.  The children's menu even boasted roast beef dinners with gravy!

Many people, however, fondly remember HoJo's for the fried clams dish.  An idea of the Saffron brothers from Massachusetts, the restaurant removed the bellies from the clams (and would later use them in the clam chowder) before frying them in a thick batter.  Howard Johnson's sold so many clams that the Saffrons' business grew to over seven processing plants just to service the needs of the Howard Johnson's company. 


Part of the restaurant's success was due in part to Mr. Johnson's relentless business acumen and drive for personal success.  He once claimed working was his only hobby.  He ensured quality by testing every item before it went on the menu and frequently made unannounced visits to his restaurants.  His guiding philosophy was that "quality sells" ensured the company used only top-quality meats and all-natural ingredients.  He spent an industry-high 48% gross revenue on food supplies.  For comparison, many restaurants today in 2022 spend approximately 25-35%.

Johnson made sure his employees understood his lofty standards during his unscheduled inspections.  He would check everything from scuff marks on the floor to toilet paper in the bathroom, missing nothing during his visit.  Johnson was known for having an angry streak with no time for failure or substandard quality and wouldn't hesitate to voice his displeasure.

He even established the "Howard Johnson Bible" as a robust guide of quality standards, written entirely by himself.  It covered everything from operating the business, handling customers, and how the staff should look and dress.  

Mr. Johnson also understood that his customers wanted simplicity, most just road-weary and hungry.  He was once said, "If you say, Halibut Dante, the average American will never buy it.  But, if you say halibut with cream and tomato sauce, he'll not only buy it, but he'll say it's great."


To maintain the required consistency across the country, he developed a system in which food would be made and then flash-frozen before shipping and later reheated.  While that may sound somewhat disappointing, the dishes were the work of highly trained chefs.  In 1959, the company hired French chef Jacques Pepin.  Despite Pepin's credentials, Howard first asked him to work as a line cook in the Rego Park, Queens, New York location to get a feel for the food and clientele.  After learning the finer aspects of hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried clams, Johnson let him experiment with other items such as beef burgundy and several stews.  After Pepin finished his "apprenticeship," he would oversee a kitchen that would routinely cook 1,000 turkeys and 10 tons of hot dogs per day for distribution to the franchises across America.

The restaurants were so successful that other businessmen began placing motels directly next to these restaurants to capitalize on the weary travelers who now had a full belly and needed a place to stop for the night.  


Howard Johnson saw the potential and decided that perhaps he should get himself into the motel business rather than let the others capitalize on his success.  In 1953, he opened the first Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge in Savannah, Georgia.  The motel business grew to immense success and even eventually outpaced the restaurant, but we'll come back to the motel business later.

By the close of the 1950s, the World War I veteran who once ran a debt-laden cigar company in Boston had accumulated an expensive art collection, three homes, a yacht, four marriages, and a rapidly growing restaurant empire that nearly reached coast to coast.  In 1959, he handed the reigns of the business to his son, the 26-year-old Howard Brennan "Bud" Johnson.  The senior Johnson remained chairman and treasurer until 1964 and passed away in 1972.


Howard Brennan Johnson (HBJ) had inherited a thriving conglomerate worth $80 million.  The company had solid plans in place, and a multi-year pipeline of new potential properties as the Interstate System continued to be built.  The young Johnson's company added a new restaurant every NINE DAYS at its peak.

A graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School, the younger Johnson had quite a different way of conducting business from his father.  Bud Johnson's tenure saw years of cost-cutting and increased demands for profits.

In 1960, in an effort to modernize the company, the young Johnson established posh executive offices in New York City's Rockefeller Center.   

In 1961, HBJ took the company public.  By then, the company had reached 605 restaurants, 265 owned, and 340 franchises across 33 states.  The corporation also owned 10 Red Coach Grill steakhouses and 88 Howard Johnson's Motor Lodges.  

Shortly after the initial stock offering, Howard Deering Johnson and his son Howard Brennan sold a combined two million shares of stock for a sum estimated in the neighborhood of $1 billion.  In 2022, that would be equivalent to $9.3 billion.

Two years later, the company's profit margin rose to an all-time high for the fourth straight year as the company continued expansion around the United States.  

In 1964, the number of motels reached 130, each with a Howard Johnson's restaurant on-site or adjacent.  


In 1967, HBJ made a landmark deal with Texaco that permitted holders of the oil company's new credit card to charge their meals and lodging at Howard Johnson's.  The end results improved gross revenues by a reported $200 million.

That same year, the company initiated the distribution and sales of some of the most popular Howard Johnson's dishes through the frozen food section in supermarkets.  


Towards the end of 1967, the company finally opened its first California outlet, becoming truly coast-to-coast.


In an attempt to combat the rise of fast food in America, the brand launched "HoJo Junction." Three Junctions were built, with plans for 50 more.  The Junction was designed to be less formal, doing away with waitress service and the full menu for a limited selection of meals served in disposable containers, served by the customers themselves.  No item on the menu was sold for greater than 99 cents, appealing to the price-conscience patron.  Within 5 years, the only 3 HoJo Junctions built were converted into regular Howard Johnson's restaurants, and the project ended.


More successful than HoJo Junction was the 1969 concept "The Ground Round." This new chain of restaurants, and the subject of a future "Restaurant of YesterYear" article, was a limited-menu, pub-style suburban chain with entertainment and a family-fun atmosphere that your's truly has many fond memories of.  They were famous for showing movies on a big screen and allowing customers to throw peanut shells or popcorn on the floor.  As a kid, I remember the "pay what you weigh" concept where they weighed children in the lobby, and there was a formula of pounds-to-pennies.  

Ground Round was severed from the company in 1985 and eventually, in 2004, sold to a Freeport, Maine-based conglomerate of franchise owners.  The chain grew to 211 locations in 1995 before falling to its current level of only 15.

By the mid-1970s, the Howard Johnson Company reached its eventual peak with more than 1,000 restaurant locations and over 500 motor lodges in 42 States and Canada.  

Unfortunately, the late 70s marked a downturn for the company they would never recover from.  

The oil embargo of 1974 caused immense loss of revenue to the Howard Johnson's Company.  85% of the company's revenue was from road travelers, and when Americans could no longer afford long road trips or vacations, the restaurants and motels suffered greatly.  

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 further exacerbated things.  New startup airlines drove airfares down to more reasonable levels, leading even fewer people to drive past a Howard Johnson's for a meal or night's stay.  

Indirectly, the company's public stock offering contributed to its eventual demise.  Before the initial stock offering, the company spent richly on food.  They hired top architects, chefs, and designers.  No expense was spared with ingredients or building construction.  Still, once HoJo became publically traded, the shareholder involvement brought an ongoing (and ever-increasing) need for lower costs and higher profits.  

To appease shareholders, food costs were slashed, leading to lower quality food items.  Trademark features such as the "bottomless" cup of coffee were discontinued, and the service and quality of the overall experience declined rapidly.  

The model of serving pre-made food with high-quality ingredients shipped frozen around the country proved to be costly, especially compared to the innovations in the rapidly growing fast-food outlets like McDonald's and Burger King.  The frozen food gave rise to the scornful joke that Howard Johnson's was "fast food served slow" and the "ice cream came in 28 flavors and its food in one!" After getting used to nearly instant service at fast food joints like McDonald's, the customers at HoJo's started complaining about the agonizingly slow service and overpriced bland food.  


After discovering they served over 30 million soft drinks in a year, the company made the financially disastrous decision to create "HoJo Cola," a private labeled soda.  This disappointed customers who preferred familiar Coca-Cola products and HoJo Cola was quickly discontinued.  

HBJ attempted to streamline the company for better profits.  He began deeply cutting costs by serving cheaper ingredients and employing fewer people at each location.  Long-time patrons quickly grew dissatisfied as they were used to the standardized, high-quality meals and services they had become accustomed to.  

The younger Johnson removed the antiquated soda fountains and replaced them with period-popular cocktail lounges.  Gone were the decades-old aqua and orange, replaced with 1970s era popular earth tones like brown and taupe.  

To draw more profit, HBJ launched new concepts, such as HoJo Campgrounds, Deli Baker Ice Cream, and very budget-conscious 3 Penny Inn motels.  None of these concepts lasted more than a few years and only furthered the company's fall.

A former executive is quoted as, "We had all of these ideas to improve the restaurants and motels, but the company never wanted to spend the money to do so."  

The majority of the company's 40-year toll road monopolies were set to expire in 1979, removing a guaranteed revenue stream the company had relied on for four decades.  In 1978, a Turnpike Commission Chairman acknowledged numerous complaints against the Howard Johnson's company for failing to improve service to motorists.  He specifically blamed the company's lack of competition for its lack of willingness to improve.  In some places, it was so bad that the Kansas Turnpike Authority attempted to cancel the contract nearly ten years early.  


As the 1980s approached, the Howard Johnson's Company started an era that passed from one new owner to another.  

In 1979, Johnson accepted what he called a "too-good-to-pass-on" acquisition offer for over $630 million from the London, England-based Imperial Group.  Imperial obtained 1,040 restaurants and 520 HoJo motor lodges in the deal.  Two years later, Michael Hostage, formerly of Continental Baking Company and Marriott Corporation, was hired to replace Howard Brennan Johnson as CEO.  

Imperial's plan to improve the balance sheet focused on making small changes.  They allowed franchise owners to source their own food ingredients rather than rely on only the company's supply chain.  They also unified staff at combined motel-restaurant locations and provided food-and-lodging package deals.  

Imperial attempted to lure business travelers to the motel chain, which had since fallen to sixth among hotel chains in customer satisfaction ratings.  They initiated corporate discounts and a new reservation system while raising the marketing budget.  Imperial also gave licensees a choice to accept new low-interest loans to refurbish their properties by the end of 1987 or lose their Howard Johnson's license.

During this period, a mid-priced Plaza Hotel chain (such as the Boston Park Plaza 57 mentioned at the start of this article) was created for the business traveler, with 90 locations planned over five years.  These included amenities business people expected but would not receive at the family-oriented HoJos, such as lounges, meeting rooms, banquet halls, and executive floors.

Four years went by, and despite seeing promise in turning the company around, Imperial abruptly reversed course and sold the brand to Marriott in September of 1985 for $314 million.  Marriott, who already owned Big Boy and Roy Rogers Restaurants (Read About Roy Rogers HERE), was only interested in the company-owned restaurants for the prime highway location real estate.  

Marriott kept the 418 company-owned locations and planned to convert them to Big Boy restaurants.   Marriott immediately sold the franchised locations and the company-owned lodging units to Prime Motor Inns, Inc for $97 million.  Prime also assumed Howard Johnson's $138 million in debt during the deal.  Prime received the Howard Johnson's name and trademark, all 125 motor lodges operated by Howard Johnson, 375 franchised motels, and 199 franchised restaurants. 

By the end of 1987, only 90 Marriott-owned Howard Johnson's restaurants remained, and by mid-1991, only 50 were still standing.  Prime Motor Inns began to rid itself of the independently owned units once the franchise agreements ran out, electing to let them expire rather than renew them.

I mentioned earlier that we'd eventually get to the motor lodges, so now seems like a good time.

In 1954, after seeing other entrepreneurs open motels near his popular roadside restaurants, Howard Johnson opened the first motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia.  During the 50s, the number of HoJo restaurants tripled, and independent local motel owners established their businesses next to the successful restaurants.  In 1954, after seeing other entrepreneurs profit from his popular roadside restaurants, Howard Johnson steered the company to become the "Landmark for Sleepy Americans."  

Before hotel chains established a nationwide network, motorists traveling across America would often find a "hit-or-miss" experience when it came to lodging.  Johnson's idea was to do for motels what he did with his restaurants: offer a consistent quality product that looked and felt the same in one location as it did the other.  Johnson knew the value of consumer trust and that customers knowing what to expect would encourage more travel and visits to his businesses.


The motels were designed similarly to the restaurants with brand recognition in mind.  A dramatic A-frame gatehouse and orange roof caused many Americans to report seeing the design and associating it with good times and family vacations.  

The company hired specialists to identify top real estate locations for the new motor lodges.  Interestingly, these specialists determined that passing motorists would take less than 20 seconds to identify the orange roofed Howard Johnson motor lodges and restaurants.  As the company described, "the proposed site must enhance the facility, lend itself to attractive landscaping, and provide sufficient parking."  


The motor lodges promised fresh linens daily and modern facilities with larger guest rooms offering air conditioning, televisions, and full private bathrooms with tub and showers.  These may seem basic now but were considered luxuries when found in motels outside of the big cities back then.

In 1964, the company added 42 motor lodges.  The following year, they added 55, bringing the total to 265 to compliment their still-growing cache of 770 restaurants.  In 1965, the company was proud to boast its annual sales eclipsed McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.  According to company statistics, in 1965, they served 350 million meals and provided lodging to 8 million travelers.

Howard Johnson's motor lodge's contribution to the lodging industry is significant.  The improvement and standardization of the motels were an essential part of the early success of the American interstate highways.  The Interstate System had federal legislation written that expressly prohibited service plazas on all new highways.  Unlike the service plaza contracts with State-owned turnpikes or highways, the Howard Johnson company purchased the land near exit ramps as a workaround.  Many of the original HoJo restaurant and motel locations have since grown into their own version of small towns along the highway, featuring a slew of businesses, gas stations, restaurants, and lodging.

Prime Motor Inns had rising debts and began looking to balance its budget sheet, so in 1990, Prime sold the Howard Johnson and Ramada chains to Blackstone Capital Partners for $170 million.  Blackstone added the Days Inn chain and renamed its lodging operation Hospitality Franchise Systems (HFS).

In 1996, HFS announced it would require its franchisees to upgrade their property and establish a new rating system that designated properties based on full or limited service models.  It also allowed franchises to discontinue the distinctive orange roofs that still remained on most of the motels.

An HFS-Era Logo With New Colors

In 1997, HFS was merged with Comp-U-Card, International (CUC) to form a new company, Cendant, in an $11 billion deal.  CUC was a telephone-based mail-order shopping club.  Cendant assumed all HFS properties, including the 550 Howard Johnson motels. 

However, accounting discrepancies that led to an investigation finding financial fraud among the leadership of Cendant heavily damaged the company.  While Howard Johnson's parent company regained credibility, the chain was focused on expansion by targeting business travel.
  
In 2005, Cendant sold the naming rights of the restaurants to La Mancha Group.  La Mancha was run by New York banker David Kushner, who proposed a very aggressive expansion plan for the HoJo brand.  He intended to save the restaurant chain and resurrect the brand by re-introducing HoJo coffee, ice cream, and an expanded grocery store frozen food product line.  Those plans never materialized, thanks partly to affiliate bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis.  

In 2006, following several accounting fraud scandals, Cendant would split itself into four companies:

Wyndham Worldwide:  Wyndham Hotels, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8, Wingate Inn, Howard Johnson, Travelodge, Baymont Inn, Knights Inn, and others
Avis-Budget Group:  Avis Rent a Car, Budget Rent A Car, Budget Truck Rentals
Realogy:  Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Sotheby's Intl
Travelport:  Travel and Ticket Systems, Orbitz, and others

Wyndham dropped the possessive form of Johnson's and operated the new company under the name "Howard Johnson."  

The HoJo brand eventually became a "catch-all" for any independent motels recently absorbed by Wyndham.  The Howard Johnson name would provide access to a central reservation infrastructure and a nationally recognized brand name, even if its reputation had been tarnished in recent years.  Some of these new locations did not offer food options or weren't even near a restaurant.

Wyndham announced its intent to operate the Howard Johnson brand under new "tier levels" ranging from limited-service lodging to full-service properties with concierge service and complete business centers.  The Howard Johnson properties were broken up into Howard Johnson Express Inns, Howard Johnson Inns, Howard Johnson Hotels, and Howard Johnson Plaza Hotels.  

This tiered system was shut down in 2015 when under the Renew Project meant to revitalize the brand, all locations were rebranded as "Howard Johnson by Wyndham." The revival embraced the heritage of the once-great company by bringing back select flavors of ice cream to the hotel, a new logo, and a color palette, all while phasing out the branding tiers and giving all properties a facelift into a lower-midscale chain.  Before this refresh, the Wyndham era Howard Johnson hotels varied in style and lacked the consistency for which the original brand motels were known.

In April 2007, only 3 HoJo restaurant locations remained in Lake George and Lake Placid, New York, and Bangor, Maine.

By 2017, the chain that once crossed the country with bright orange roofed buildings seemingly everywhere was down to one left in Lake George, New York.  

After a brief closure in 2012, the "Lake George Family Restaurant" opened at the site of the original Lake George Howard Johnson's.  Using a grandfather clause in his lease from the original owner, the new owner renamed it the "Howard Johnson's Restaurant." 

The future of the "Last One Standing" was put in doubt on several occasions.  Real estate issues and the arrest of the owner/operator put the business in doubt in 2017.  Once finished with his six-month jail sentence, he ran the restaurant sporadically with limited hours.  The restaurant operated as an independent entity, and despite its use of the original name and building, it has little to no connection to the former franchise.  Negative reviews from disappointed HoJo fans highlight the poor condition of the restaurant, dissimilar menu, and its decor.  While one can purchase HoJo merchandise inside the restaurant, that's about where the connection ends to the once famed establishment.

Perhaps, in the end, the most significant cause for the downfall and demise of Howard Johnson's was from new competition that, in a way, helped create themselves.  The success story of Howard Johnson's was so well known that it was used as a blueprint to be repeated and improved upon time and time again.  Ultimately, the business failed to anticipate trends and make changes while share-holder-driven cost-cutting cheapened the brand and devalued the customer experience.  

Like many of you dear readers, when my wife and I travel, we like the familiarity of certain brands of restaurants or hotels.  We always try to stop at Wendy's for food on the go.  We also try to stay at a hotel in the Marriott family while traveling.  In doing so, we know what we'll be getting ahead of time and usually aren't disappointed.  

We can thank Howard Johnson's for that.  We travel with confidence because we know that when we stay or eat at a specific brand, no matter where we will get a similar experience to the last time.  It is industry standardization that will be Howard Johnson's lasting legacy.  


WOW!  We did it!  Thanks for sticking with me through this long winding history, but it felt good to do some research on a fun historical piece.  These are the types of articles that excite me most.  

Before I leave you with some trivia, I wanted to put a bow on the two Howard Johnson's I mentioned earlier that I had visited in the past.  After some digging, here is where they stand today:

Boston - Park Plaza 57 "Howard Johnson's Motor Hotel"

The famed 57 Park Plaza that my family stayed at in Boston is now called the "Revere Hotel." And that Benningan's that my brother, unfortunately, had a tray full of drinks dumped in his lap?   These days it's a CVS Pharmacy two blocks over from The Revere.  Speaking of Bennigan's, if you haven't read my write-up on the history of Bennigan's, please CLICK HERE to do so.

The location of the other HoJo that I had the not-so pleasure of staying in has been dumped from my memory where exactly it was.  I spent a good hour or two on Google Maps looking for it but finding a run-down roadside motel from 15 years ago alongside I-70 in Pennsylvania is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  From the best I can tell through Google Maps, it seems like it's now a Comfort Inn in Belle Vernon, PA.  As someone who spends roughly 150 nights a year in hotel rooms, that place was easily in my top 3 worst rooms ever.  I should have known when the front desk staff asked if I wanted to see the room before checking in...

Fun Trivia

As a teenager, Rachel Ray, the chef/author/television personality, worked at the Lake George, New York Howard Johnson's.  

The film "2001: A Space Odyssey" was one of the first movies to use blatant product placement.  Howard Johnson's logos appear aboard the space station, and the chain's "Lamplighter Lounge" was updated to the "Earthlight Room," a lounge for passengers taking the Moon shuttle.  It's also hinted that Howard Johnson's served the space station, similar to the exclusive turnpike contract established in the 1940s.

Most of a Season Five episode of "Mad Men" titled "Far Away Places" involves Don Draper's trip to the Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Motor Lodge in Plattsburgh, New York.  While the exterior scenes were filmed in Baldwin Park, California, the episode sparked a resurgence in Howard Johnson nostalgia.

The 2019 Martin Scorcese film "The Irishman," starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci, featured the hotel chain.

In the 1964 Hitchcock thriller "Marnie," Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren were filmed entering and dining inside the Springfield Township, Pennysylvania Howard Johnson's in the Springfield Shopping Center.  

Not only did Howard Johnson's make the New England-style hot dog bun famous nationwide, but it helped invent it!  Using local bread supplier J.J. Nissen of Maine, Johnson asked Nissen to develop a special bun for its fried clam rolls, specifically something top-sliced that would stand upright and be easier to fill and serve.  When it worked so great for the clams, Johnson used them for his "frankforts," and just like that... the New England Style Hot Dog Bun was born!





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