This week, word comes from Lake George, New York that one of just three remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurants has closed. In pre- and post-war America, if you were on the road or even in an aircraft, Howard Johnson’s was where you ate.
During Season 5 of the AMC series Mad Men, the plot of the episode “Far Away Places” centers on Don and Megan Draper’s road trip to a fictional Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Plattsburg, New York, near the Canadian border. It was almost an hour inside and outside that restaurant, and it was a reminder of just how familiar those restaurants were — the orange roof, the weathervane, the sea foam green booths — to Americans on the road in the 1960s.
The plot revolves around Sterling Cooper’s pitch for Howard Johnson’s business. The restaurant in Plattsburg is fictionally HoJo’s flagship location. “Would you say it’s a delightful destination?” Don asks Megan. Megan replies, “It’s not a destination, it’s on the way to someplace.” For millions of Americans every year, Howard Johnson’s survived on Americans going someplace.
Howard Johnson’s: The Flavor of America
Howard Johnson bought a corner pharmacy in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1925. It may have been a working drug store at the time, but it didn’t take long for Johnson to figure out that it was the soda fountain that was paying the bills. Along with a new ice cream recipe that jacked up the butterfat content in the product, Johnson started building concession stands along the stretch of beach leading toward Boston. By the late 1920s, Johnson had built his first sit-down restaurant.
By 1936, Johnson had 41 restaurants — two he owned outright, and the rest franchised. Three years later, over a hundred Howard Johnson’s dotted the two-lane highways on America’s East Coast. Suddenly, Johnson went from running a soda fountain to running a corporation that fed a million and a half people a year.
World War II had a huge impact on the company as it did on a lot of companies that relied on disposable income. Johnson hung on and after the war ended, his company came roaring back, four times larger than before in a matter of a decade. In 1954, there were 400 Howard Johnson’s restaurants, and 10 percent of them were company owned in lucrative turnpike locations.
In the post-war years, Americans were on the move. Air travel was possible and popular, but when most Americans traveled, they moved by automobile with their families. They needed food along the way, and Johnson’s orange-roofed restaurants with their trademark weathervanes and lighted neon were like waypoints along the journey. Johnson secured contracts to run restaurants on the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio Turnpikes the very moment they opened, serving hot meals to weary travelers in some of the most densely populated, heavily traveled corridors in America.
Invasion of the Clam Strip
Howard Johnson wasn’t just serving food. He was inventing it.
Back along the coast in Massachusetts, people had been eating fried clams since Chubby Woodman first dunked a breaded clam he dug out of the mud in the Essex River into a fry basket in 1916. Fried clams are as important to swamp Yankee cuisine as barbecue is to the south.
The trouble for the squeamish is that with a real New England bivalve mollusk dipped in batter and fried in hot oil, you get the whole magilla: kidneys, heart, mouth, heart, anus and — most petrifying to those unfamiliar with the clam — the pendulous, beer-bellied stomach. Yankee kids are fed clams at about the same time as they receive their first diphtheria vaccination, so their gag reflex is immune to the clam belly, but for people visiting those 400-odd familiar restaurants on America’s byways, what appeared on their plates looked too much like a murder scene.
Johnson was no dope. He realized pretty quickly that clams with bellies weren’t selling, but if he could make a fried clam without one, he’d sell clams in places where he’d never been able to before. His clam supplier was Thomas Soffron and together, they figured out a way to consistently make a “clam strips” from the foot of the clam, excising the nasty belly. Soffron sold clam strips exclusively to Howard Johnson’s restaurants, and they made both clam pioneers wealthy.
Johnson sold fried clam strips up and down the East Coast for generations. Along the way, the restaurant — by 1961 under the leadership of his son, H. B. Johnson — hired chefs like Jacques Pepin to make meals that could be flash frozen and sent to supermarkets around the country.
The frozen meals Pepin helped create made Howard Johnson’s transition from the highway to the air, remaining frozen and stable until the time they needed to be prepared.
Howard Johnson and the Oil Embargo
Howard Johnson’s restaurant success was inextricably tied to the way we drove. As salesmen, business travelers and families began to fly more and drive less, the success of the Howard Johnson’s chain began its decline. In 1975, Howard Johnson’s was the most successful restaurant chain in America, but every year thereafter, business suffered.
The first major blows were delivered during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1974, which kept American families a lot closer to home than they had been in the 1950s and 1960s. The effects of the embargo rippled for the better part of two decades, hammering Howard Johnson’s in the process. By the 1980s, when America began to finally travel again, new restaurants dotted the landscape, providing competition that Howard Johnson’s never had.
By 1979, Howard Johnson’s had divested itself completely from the restaurant business, and Marriott, which had purchased the company’s motor inns, sold off all the corporate-owned restaurants. Howard Johnson’s franchisees banded together to try and hang on, but without the leadership of a strong parent company, investment disappeared. Restaurants closed by the hundreds until 2005, when just eight restaurants survived.
Last week, one of just three Howard Johnson’s restaurants — located in Bangor, Maine, Lake Placid, New York and Lake George, New York — closed for good.
When Don and Megan Draper rolled into that HoJo’s in Plattsburgh, it reminded people just how many of us spent time eating there. But rather than filming at one of the few actual Howard Johnson’s left, though, the restaurant was recreated in Baldwin Park, California.
It was a fiction created for the show, and whatever reminder we had of its popularity, it was gone in an instant.