Robert Whitcomb: The rise and fall of the New England-born HoJo's empire

After Howard Johnson got into (over-expanded?) national  catering in addition to its famous orange-roofed restaurants and ice-cream shops. Later, it became a major hotel chain. Somehow "Idlewild'' sounds more romantic than John F. Kennedy International Airport.

After Howard Johnson got into (over-expanded?) national  catering in addition to its famous orange-roofed restaurants and ice-cream shops. Later, it became a major hotel chain. Somehow "Idlewild'' sounds more romantic than John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Flavors of Mid-Century

A History of Howard Johnson’s

How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon

 

By Anthony Mitchell Sammarco

(American Palate,  157 pp., $19.99)

The rise and fall of  the Howard Johnson Company says a lot about American society and business from the 1920s on.

It was quite a ride, some of which I was familiar with before reading Mr. Sammarco’s chaotic and seemingly unedited history of the famous chain of restaurants and, later, motels, too. Howard Deering Johnson started his company in Wollaston, a section of Quincy, Mass., close to my hometown, Cohasset. And the Howard Johnson Company bought a rival ice-cream parlor chain, Dutchland Farms (with windmills – high kitsch!), owned by friends of my father, in the late ‘30s. As the shoe companies in the area folded, the locals felt proud about having another local enterprise grow into a national powerhouse.

Mr. Sammarco’s book is rife with repetitions, confusion (there’s lots of quoted stuff but you often don’t know who’s being quoted) and almost nonstop breathless copy about the company’s “delicious foods and ice cream’’ (ice cream perhaps not considered a food?), including ‘’clams so fresh and delicious that they were called ‘Tendersweet’ clams.’’ Then there such mysteries as the chain’s “ceramic broiled steaks, chops, chicken and lobster.’’

There also many side trips with extraneous information that has little or, in some cases, nothing to do with the main history. And yet, the monomaniacal Mr. Johnson and the company he created are so interesting that you keep reading Mr. Sammarco’s boyishly enthusiastic ramblings. And the many old pictures are delightful, if randomly placed. And, praise be to God, there’s an index!

Mr. Sammarco got the main point right about the long success of “The Wonderful World of 28 Flavors’’ and its importance in American business history: “Standardization of quality, preparation and portion control ensured uniformity throughout the orange-roof restaurant chain.’’ People like Ray Kroc, of McDonald’s, said they learned a lot from Howard Johnson.

Even as the company went national, the emphasis on ice cream (always a huge favorite in New England) and such regional specialties as fried clams and Yankee pot roast, and, at many HoJo restaurants, pseudo-Colonial Revival architecture, reminded many around America of the company’s regional roots. Fried clams,  that very New England heart-attack enabler, may have been the chain’s most famous food after ice cream.

I remember well the heyday of HoJo’s, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the restaurants, with their famous “28 Flavors’’ signs were all over America. Almost all of them were expertly situated and promoted, on or near major roads and with strong signage. It wasn’t an exciting place to go (except for small children drawn to the ice cream), but it was comfortingly predictable for travelers, weary or otherwise.

Mr. Johnson came to understand  early on that the automobile would profoundly change Americans’ dining  and lodging habits.

He  started out by buying  a Wollaston drugstore in 1925 and, recognizing the profit potential from New Englanders’ love of ice cream, experimented with many new flavors, all using more butterfat than most ice cream makers did. They were hits with patrons of the store’s soda fountain. The desire to pay off the debts from his late father’s cigar business  helped drive his work ethic.

He responded to the popularity of his “28 Flavors’’ of ice cream by expanding his operation to summer ice cream stands along streets at the region’s urban beaches as the number of people with cars to get there was rapidly increasing.

Then, in 1929, he opened his first real  full-service restaurant, in downtown Quincy. Eugene O’Neill gave him a boost:  The censors in Boston (remember ‘’banned in Boston’’?) prohibited his play Strange Interlude from being shown in the city.  So it was moved to the Quincy Theater, right across the street from Mr. Johnson’s new establishment, which thrived from the business from the playgoers, many of whom told their friends how good the food was (at least compared to the contemporary bland New England “cuisine’’ of the time).

The Depression hit Mr. Johnson’s new creation hard. But the workaholic came up with a scheme to expand anyway. In 1935, he arranged a franchise relationship with a friend/businessman at a busy (especially in the summer, of course) intersection in Orleans on Cape Cod.

Under this arrangement, the Howard Johnson Company would let a franchisee use the by now well-known Howard Johnson’s name,  buy all (highly standardized) food and other supplies from a central HoJo’s commissary and adhere to Mr. Johnson’s “Bible’’ on how the final food preparation and table and counter services would be done.

Mr. Johnson insisted on uniformity: “When you get the same kind of {Howard Johnson’s} sundae in New York that you get in Florida, you are more likely to buy one in Maine,’’   he said.

While franchises were not unknown at the time, it was Howard Johnson who established it in the restaurant business, along with aspects of what would come to be called “fast food’’ – stuff to take out,  as well as brisk counter service, albeit not nearly as fast as in today’s computerized fast-food establishments.

After tough times during World War II because of rationing, Mr. Johnson’s empire grew rapidly into hundreds of company-owned restaurants and franchises. And starting in the mid-‘50s, the company got into the “motor lodge’’ (AKA motel) business.

Perhaps no businessman understood the business opportunities associated with Americans’ love affair with (and mandatory reliance on) driving as well as did Howard Johnson. As the Interstate Highway System got going in the late ‘50s, the company’s growth accelerated. As Time magazine said in 1960:

“The travel-weary U.S. motorist has been conditioned to think of food—and a chance to let the kids out of the car—when he spots a roof of bright orange tile along the highway. This ‘landmark for hungry Americans’ is the trademark of Howard Deering Johnson, a onetime cigar salesman who has become a part of Americana (teenagers call his places "HoJos") by catering to the common denominator of U.S. taste and haste.’’

Mr. Sammarco writes that the chain “served a traveling public with fine food.’’ I’d call it “reliable’’ food.

When the company went public, in 1961, Mr.  Sammarco writes, “it consisted of 605 Howard Johnson’s restaurants (265 operated by the company and 340 by licensees {franchisees},  10 Red Coach Grill {more upscale} company-owned restaurants and 88 Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges, all of them franchisees.’’

By 1975,  the empire included more than 1,000 owned and franchised restaurants,  over 500 motor lodges, vending and turnpike operations and a massive manufacturing and distribution system.  

The orange roofs and blue shutters of the chain, along with the predictable and safe  food, seemed to have become a permanent fixture of the American road.

The ‘50s and ‘60s were the heyday of the American nuclear family. The extended families of earlier generations – lots of uncles, aunts and cousins living close by – were  in steep decline but illegitimacy was not yet in ascendency and intact families, with a married mother and father, and often a lot of kids, dominated domestic life in times that were becoming increasingly prosperous.

Thusthe “family restaurant’’ approach taken by Howard Johnson (who was married four times!) was in a fertile field. Take the kids to HoJo’s! No unpleasant surprises there.

But things started to get a bit strange in patches, too. The company, in the Mad Men period of the early ‘60s, hired two French chefs – Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin – to help develop new meals, and, also wandering far from its roots, got Dior to design new uniforms for HoJo waitresses! Were these fire bells in the night that the company was losing focus?

By 1975,  the empire included more than 1,000 owned and franchised restaurants,  over 500 motor lodges, vending and turnpike operations and a massive manufacturing and distribution system, including frozen food.  

Clouds were gathering. New competitors, most famously McDonald’s and Burger King, were pressing to dominate the downscale side of the restaurant business. And while more affluent folks still tended to want a somewhat leisurely sit-down meal, especially in the evening, many other people wanted more speed -- both takeout and in-house service --and lower prices. I suspect that’s in part because growing work pressures, shrinking inflation-adjusted average incomes and the influx of many women into the workforce meant that there was less time and less income for more traditional restaurant meals for many Americans. And the richer folks found HoJo’s boring: It was too standardized.

You also have to wonder whether the expansion of the company into the motel business seriously weakened the company’s focus and undermined its brand identification amongst the public even as so many competing restaurant chains were entering the market.

Meanwhile, quality was slipping. Howard D. Johnson retired as president in 1959, with his son, taking over. Because of his fear of debt, the elder Mr. Johnson had tended to keep too tight a lid on certain expenses, especially the number of employees and their pay. So many of his establishments were understaffed, causing slow service, and things got worse under his son.

Even before his retirement as president, the elder Mr. Johnson started to spend less time making spot visits to his restaurants to check on the quality of the food and service, which gradually declined in his later years, even as he spent more time in places like Manhattan’s Stork Club. (That may have pleased his employees: Mr. Johnson was a large and fierce-looking man.)

His smooth and preppy son, Howard B. Johnson, was also obsessed with cutting costs, and spent too little time checking on quality and keeping up with demographic and other changes in American life that would help or hurt a restaurant chain. Rather than working out of Wollaston, the official headquarters, he operated from an office in Manhattan. He was not an operations guy like his father.

Mr. Sammarco usefully quotes Brian Miller, writing in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education:

“The fall of the Howard Johnson’s brand {in the ‘70s} was faster than it took to build. When the reins of the company were passed down from father to son, the son appeared to quickly lose control over the direction of the company. Without the persona of his father inhis corner, the younger Johnson was leading a company that lacked a vision.’’ Well, that’s not quite right. The younger Mr. Johnson had quite a few successful years at the helm but he did lack a unified longterm vision.

That HoJo’s  had become a public company also probably undermined its long-term prospects. The younger Johnson wanted to keep the stock price as high as possible but this meant avoiding needed but costly improvements and innovations. Given the choice between working for a closely held company (assuming  that the owner/owners were halfway civilized) and apublicly held one, I’d choose the former any time: The former is more likely to take the long view and reinvest.

Thus the company’s profits and revenues started to slide in the ‘70s, and in 1979, Howard B. Johnson sold the company to Imperial Group Ltd., which in 1985 sold it to Marriott. Various financial permutations and combinations led to rapid shrinkage over the next couple of decades, and as of this writing there is only one Howard Johnson’s restaurant left, in Lake George, New York.

There may never again be a chain of “family restaurants’’  quite like HoJo’s in our much multicultural stew of a country, but that one was created, and provided decent service to all, and joy to some, especially children, is edifying and a soothing memory of mid-century Americana.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of newenglanddiary.com, a columnist for GoLocal24.com,  former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal.