Howard Johnson’s Restaurants

To the road-weary traveler in the early days of the motor car, an orange-colored roof was the closest thing they would find to an oasis. What lie ahead was reliably good eats, and clean and comfortable lodging. For that trademark orange roof meant only one thing, Howard Johnson’s – and the founder of the company made sure his customers were pleased with their visit.

Howard Deering Johnson was born in Boston in 1897. He served in WWI and, upon his return, went into the ice cream business. His premium quality confection was sold at his store and at the local beaches and was a big enough hit that he eventually expanded to 28 flavors.

Eventually, he decided to offer regular food as well and soon opened another popular restaurant. The typical fare included hamburgers, hot dogs, fried fish, and turkey dinners. The formula worked, and as the 1940s approached, his franchise restaurants (a new concept in the industry) could be found all along the east coast. Then WWII arrived and business declined considerably, causing many of these establishments to close. Johnson would bounce back though.

Following the war, Johnson wisely paid attention to the increasing popularity of motor car travel, and as a result, started positioning new restaurants along the highways. He built elaborate colonial-style restaurants, each with a bright orange roof to act as a beacon to the hungry traveler.

The concept was so successful that a funny thing started to happen – people started placing lodging next to his restaurants to capitalize on his popularity. Howard Johnson realized that perhaps he should also get into the motel business, and in 1954, he opened the first Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge.

When the Interstate Highway Act was passed, he shrewdly made sure that he owned property near the exit ramps, and soon after, his business grew bigger than he ever could have imagined in those early ice-cream-making years. Still, when the 60s arrived, Johnson passed the company reigns to his son.

And then came the explosion of the fast-food industry. Soon, places like McDonald’s were providing formidable competition to the chain, to the extent that HoJo’s acquired franchising rights for Burger King, and began replacing many of their restaurants. The family eventually sold both the restaurants and the motels, and soon after, many were rebranded or torn down completely. Sadly, as of a few years ago there were only three operating Howard Johnson’s restaurants remaining, although the motel part of the business has stayed afloat.

The absence of those familiar orange roofs, ice cream treats, and heaps of fried clams are sorely felt by the former patrons of Howard Johnson’s. Progress removed a prized piece of Americana from the landscape and gave citizens one less choice for a good meal during their auto travels. While rumors persist that the company is preparing to make a comeback, the glory days of Howard Johnson’s are going to be mighty hard to resurrect.

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