Howard Johnson: The Last of a Restaurant Icon

The last Howard Johnson restaurant is located in Lake George, NY. Image credit: Mike Groll/AP Photo

Marking yet another step in the evolution of American dining (for better or worse), Howard Johnson closed one of their last two restaurants last week. One less place to get fried clam strips, shrimp in a basket and other menu staples that nourished baby boomers and leave the chain near extinction.

The closing of the Bangor, Maine, location left only one Howard Johnson restaurant, located in Lake George, New York. Those orange-roofed roadside eateries which numbered well over 800 at one point are now barely a footnote in the on-premise conversation.

For anyone younger than 40, living in a country with seemingly endless choices for predictable if not necessarily exciting food available at all hours while travelling, it will be hard to understand how much HoJo meant at one time. Before a series of missteps and bad decisions, Howard Johnson took restaurant franchises to a new level. The New England-based restaurant chain predated the Howard Johnson hotels that still exist as part of the Wyndham Worldwide hotelier, but have no association with the once-mighty restaurant franchise.

Howard Deering Johnson started the business in 1925, when he inherited a soda fountain near Boston. That evolved into a chain of restaurants that featured comfort food and, notably, 28 flavors of ice cream, a big selling point for families touring the American highways in the 1960s. The orange roofs and blue spires represented a dependable place for travelers to park the family car, grab a meal, and spend the night.

The iconic Times Square location in New York finally closed in the mid-2000s, marking a slow disappearance of the association between dining and drinking and that once-iconic brand name, despite fond memories of road trip stops at the peaked-roof restaurants. Other locations soon closed, and now, the brand which pioneered the use of fine dining chefs to create dishes for a large chain (Jacques Pépin spent a number of years there innovating and improving their fare), is on its last unit.

Recently, numerous chain restaurants have started shuttering stores in order to reorganize their fiscal viability. But once it starts, the closure of 25, 45, 80, 100 units rarely stops. HoJo’s effectively died when its leader died and a number of owners not in synch with their customers started making wholesale changes, often the wrong ones that didn’t suit their current customer base nor changing American dining and drinking trends.

Too many bad choices ruined the chain that ruled the country, and it’s a cautionary tale to anyone in charge of dining and drinking at any of the chains that are now wrestling with shifting economic and demographic changes. Keep in touch with what your customers really want or end up like HoJo: merely a piece of American nostalgia.

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