Howard Johnson's, or Howard Johnson by Wyndham, is an American chain of hotels and motels located primarily throughout the United States and Canada. It had also once been a chain of restaurants for over 90 years and its name was widely known for that alone. Founded by Howard Deering Johnson, it was the largest restaurant chain in the U.S. throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with more than 1,000 combined company-owned and franchised outlets.
|Founded||1925Quincy, MA (restaurants) in |
1954Savannah, GA (motor lodges) in
|Founder||Howard Deering Johnson|
Number of locations
|356 (Q4 2017 )|
New York (1 restaurant)
|Cynthia Liu (Brand President)|
Geoff Ballotti (President & CEO, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts)
|Parent||Wyndham Hotels & Resorts|
Howard Johnson hotels and motels are now part of Wyndham Worldwide. Howard Johnson's restaurants were franchised separately from the hotel brand beginning in 1986, but in the years that followed, severely dwindled in number and all but disappeared by the turn of the century. As of 2018, only one Howard Johnson's restaurant remains: in Lake George, New York. The food and beverage rights to the restaurant are currently owned by Wyndham Worldwide. The line of branded supermarket frozen foods, including ice cream, is no longer manufactured.
In 1925, Howard Deering Johnson borrowed $2,000 to buy and operate a small corner pharmacy in Wollaston, a neighborhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. Johnson was surprised to find it easy to pay back the money lent to him, after discovering his recently installed soda fountain had become the busiest part of his drugstore. Eager to ensure that his store would remain successful, Johnson decided to come up with a new ice cream recipe. Some sources say the recipe was based on his mother's homemade ice creams and desserts, while others say that it was from a local German immigrant, who either sold or gave Johnson the ice cream recipe. Regardless, the new recipe made the ice cream more flavorful due to an increased content of butterfat. Eventually Johnson came up with 28 flavors of ice cream. Johnson is quoted as saying, "I thought I had every flavor in the world. That '28' (flavors of ice cream) became my trademark."
Throughout the summers of the late 1920s, Johnson opened up concession stands on beachfront property along the coast of Massachusetts. The stands sold soft drinks, hot dogs, and ice cream. Each stand proved to be successful. With his success becoming more noticeable every year, Johnson convinced local bankers to lend him enough money to operate a sit-down restaurant. Negotiations were made and, toward the end of the decade, the first Howard Johnson's restaurant opened in Quincy. The first Howard Johnson's restaurant featured fried clams, baked beans, chicken pot pies, frankfurters, ice cream, and soft drinks.
The first Howard Johnson's restaurant and Howard Johnson's company received an incredible break in 1929, owing to an unusual set of circumstances: The mayor of nearby Boston, Malcolm Nichols, banned the planned production of Eugene O'Neill's play, Strange Interlude, in the city of Boston. Rather than fight the mayor, the Theatre Guild moved the production to Quincy. The five-hour play was presented in two parts with a dinner break. The first Howard Johnson's restaurant was near the theater; hundreds of influential Bostonians flocked to the restaurant. Through word of mouth, more Americans became familiar with the Howard Johnson's company.
Expansion in the 1930s and 1940sEdit
Johnson wanted to expand his company, but the stock market crash of 1929 prevented him from doing so. After waiting a few years and maintaining his business, Johnson was able to persuade an acquaintance in 1932 to open a second Howard Johnson's restaurant in Orleans, Massachusetts. The second restaurant was franchised and not company-owned. This was one of America's first franchising agreements.
By the end of 1936, there were 39 more franchised restaurants, creating a total of 41 Howard Johnson's restaurants. By 1939, there were 107 Howard Johnson's restaurants along various American East Coast highways, generating revenues of $10.5 million. In less than 14 years, Johnson directed a franchise network of over 10,000 employees with 170 restaurants, many serving 1.5 million people a year.
The unique icons of orange roofs, cupolas, and weather vanes on Howard Johnson properties helped patrons identify the chain's restaurants and motels. The restaurant's trademark Simple Simon and the Pieman logo was created by artist John Alcott in the 1930s.
There were 200 Howard Johnson's restaurants when America entered World War II.
By 1944, only 12 Howard Johnson's restaurants remained in business. The effects of war rationing had crippled the company. Johnson managed to maintain his business by serving commissary food to war workers and U.S. Army recruits. When the Pennsylvania Turnpike (1940), and later the Ohio Turnpike, New Jersey Turnpike and Connecticut Turnpike were built, Johnson bid for and won exclusive rights to serve drivers at service station turnoffs through the turnpike systems.
In the process of recovering from these losses, in 1947 the Howard Johnson's company began construction of 200 new restaurants throughout the American Southeast and Midwest. By 1951, the sales of the Howard Johnson's company totaled $115 million.
Entering the hotel businessEdit
By 1954, there were 400 Howard Johnson's restaurants in 32 states, about 10% of which were extremely profitable company-owned turnpike restaurants; the rest were franchises. This was one of the first nationwide restaurant chains.
While many places sold "fried clams", they were whole, which was not universally accepted by the American dining public. Howard Johnson popularized Soffron Brothers Clam Company's fried clam strips, the "foot" of hard-shelled sea clams. They became popular to eat in this fashion throughout the country.
In 1954, the company opened the first Howard Johnson's motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia. The company employed architects Rufus Nims and Karl Koch to oversee the design of the rooms and gate lodge. Nims had previously worked with the company, designing restaurants. The restaurant's trademark Simple Simon and the Pieman was now joined by a lamplighter character in the firm's marketing of its motels. According to cultural historians, the chain became synonymous with travel among American motorists and vacationers in part because of Johnson's ubiquitous outdoor advertising displays.
In 1959, Howard Deering Johnson, who had founded and managed the company since 1925, turned control over to his son, then 26-year-old Howard Brennan Johnson. The elder Johnson observed his son's running of the company until his death in 1972 at the age of 75.
Howard Johnson's Company went public in 1961; there were 605 restaurants, 265 company-owned and 340 franchised, as well as 88 franchised Howard Johnson's motor lodges in 32 states and The Bahamas.
In 1961, Johnson hired New York chefs Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin to oversee food development at the company's main commissary in Brockton, Massachusetts. Franey and Pépin developed recipes for the company's signature dishes that could be flash frozen and delivered across the country, guaranteeing a consistent product.
Segregation and desegregationEdit
While the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1954 struck down segregation in public schools; the segregation and maintenance of whites-only public facilities continued in other domains, including the Howard Johnson chain. Segregation in Howard Johnson's restaurants even provoked an international crisis in 1957, when a Howard Johnson eatery in Dover, Delaware refused service to Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the finance minister of Ghana, prompting a public apology from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, was instrumental in organizing protests and sit-ins at Howard Johnson locations in multiple states.
The city of Durham, North Carolina, became especially notable as a focus for action against segregated restaurants and hotels, including Howard Johnson's. On 12 August 1962, attorney and civil rights activist Floyd McKissick initiated the first of multiple rallies and demonstrations against segregated establishments in Durham, including the Howard Johnson's restaurant on Chapel Hill Boulevard, culminating in multiple protests on 18–20 May 1963 resulting in mass arrests as well as an eventual rapprochement with the city government. Future senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, while a student at the University of Chicago in 1962, helped organize a picket of a Howard Johnson's location in Cicero, Illinois, during his time as a student activist for CORE.
New chains and a changing publicEdit
In the 1930s, H.D. Johnson bought the Wayland Red Coach Grill and subsequently used it as the model for a new concept, a more upscale steakhouse restaurant chain called Red Coach Grills.  While they maintained some success, they were not profitable enough and eventually the last 15 Red Coach Grills were sold in 1983 to a company executive who closed them.  In 1969, Johnson once again tried a new restaurant concept, Ground Round. It proved to be successful. Though it was not a Howard Johnson's restaurant, the Ground Round chain of restaurants were company-owned and -franchised, thus increasing the Howard Johnson's company profit.
By 1975, the Howard Johnson's company had more than 1,000 restaurants and more than 500 motor lodges in 42 states and Canada. The company reached its peak that year, but the late 1970s would mark the beginning of the end for the Howard Johnson's company. Because of the oil embargo of 1974, the Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor lodges, which maintained 85% of revenues from travelers, lost profit when Americans couldn't afford to drive long trips or take frequent vacations. Also, the company model of serving pre-made food with high quality ingredients in traditional dining rooms was costly when compared to the innovations introduced by fast food outlets like McDonald's, which designed its products and restaurants to appeal to families with younger children. One of the big mistakes that the chain made was to eliminate name brand cola and replace it with Hojo cola. This drove away families with teenage children who rejected this inferior cola with their dinners.
The company also suffered from two infamous incidents at a property in the New Orleans Central Business District within 18 months of one another. The first was a July 1971 fire, set by two irate guests who had been kicked out of the hotel, which killed six people. The second, in January 1973, was a harrowing day-long siege. Former Black Panther Mark Essex used the hotel's roof as a sniper's perch, killing three police officers, the hotel's general manager and assistant general manager, and a couple from Virginia, who were on a belated honeymoon. He also wounded policemen, firemen and civilians. Then, in Jericho, New York, on November 8, 1974, singer-actress Connie Francis was raped at the Jericho Turnpike Howard Johnson's Lodge. She sued the motel chain for their lapse in security and won a judgment of $2.5 million, one of the largest such judgments in history at that time, leading to a reform in hotel security. Her rapist was never found.
H. B. Johnson attempted to streamline company operations and cut costs, such as serving cheaper food and having fewer employees. This strategy was unsuccessful, because patrons compared this new era of Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor lodges unfavorably to the services they had previously come to know. In a further effort to make the company more successful and profitable, Johnson created other concepts, such as HoJos Campgrounds and 3 Penny Inns for lodging, as well as Deli Baker Ice Cream Maker, and Chatt's for restaurants. All of these concepts failed, furthering the company's demise.
Changes in ownershipEdit
In 1979, Johnson accepted an acquisition bid of more than $630 million from Imperial Group PLC of London, England. Imperial obtained 1,040 restaurants (75% company owned/25% franchised) and 520 motor lodges (75% franchised/25% company owned). In 1981 Imperial recruited G. Michael Hostage, then CEO of Continental Baking Company and formerly executive vice president of Marriott Corporation, to replace Johnson as CEO. After four years, however, and despite evident progress in a turnaround, Imperial reversed course and decided to sell the company instead. Having declined to entertain Hostage's proposal to lead a leveraged buyout, Imperial employed Goldman Sachs who, with Hostage's assistance, sold the company to Marriott in 1986. In a contemporaneous transaction, Marriott sold the motor lodge business and the Howard Johnson trademark to Prime Motor Inns, a New Jersey company.
Marriott was interested in the company-owned restaurants not as a going concern, but for its real estate. Marriott already owned Big Boy Restaurants and Roy Rogers Restaurants; in 1982, it acquired Host International, which had operated a number of highway rest stops. Many of the established Howard Johnson sites were in prime highway locations which could be profitably converted to Big Boy or various fast food banners. As Marriott quickly demolished the company owned restaurants or converted them to the Bob's Big Boy restaurant chain, the number of Howard Johnson's restaurants remaining circa 1985 was sharply reduced; only the franchised restaurants remained untouched.
Marriott left all company-owned and franchised motor lodges untouched, as the deal called for them to be sold a year later (in 1986) to Prime Motors Inns, an existing franchisee with 63 motels.
Divestment of motor lodgesEdit
Prime Motors Inns continued to preserve the lodges, just as Marriott had, until weak hotel and real estate markets caused it to sell off its assets and cease operations in 1990. Those involved with the company owned and franchised motor lodges banded together and formed the Howard Johnson Acquisition Corporation. They successfully obtained all the rights to operate and maintain the company owned and franchised lodges. With these rights maintained, they changed their name to "Howard Johnson International Incorporated," which became a subsidiary of "Hospitality Franchise Systems Incorporated," which eventually merged with other companies to form Cendant. In 2006, Cendant split itself into Wyndham Worldwide and three other companies.
Wyndham operated the Howard Johnson brand under many "tiers" based on price, level of amenities, and services offered. Under Cendant/Wyndham, the chain became a parking place for franchise conversions, which were existing independent motels which had been renovated and added to the chain in order to provide them with access to a nationally recognised name and central reservation infrastructure. As these properties were not originally constructed as Howard Johnson sites, they lacked the distinctive architecture and some had no restaurant at all.
Howard Johnson Express Inns, Howard Johnson Inns, Howard Johnson Hotels, and Howard Johnson Plaza Hotels range from limited-service motels to full-service properties with on-site concierges and business centers. Howard Johnson began offering a "Rise 'N' Dine" continental breakfast at some economy limited service locations. The chain plans to abolish the multiple price tiers by 2015.
Divestment of restaurant brandEdit
While the Howard Johnson's company-owned and franchised motor lodges have stood the test of time since being sold by the Howard Johnson's Company in 1979, the restaurants have not. Because Marriott eliminated all the company-owned restaurants, the owners of the franchised restaurants feared elimination and banded together in 1986 and created "Franchise Associates Incorporated" or (FAI). In 1986, Marriott gave FAI the rights to operate and maintain Howard Johnson's restaurants. When Cendant acquired the Howard Johnson's motor lodges, they offered to work together with FAI to ensure the expansion of the restaurant chain.
As early as 1987, FAI chairman George Carter acknowledged that "We have the concept, but it desperately needs to be modernized, internally and externally. Howard Johnson was allowed to become tired and stale. We must get rid of that plastic image... Anything can be salvageable if a great deal of time and money and effort is put in it. And Howard Johnson needs all those same things." Attempts were made to revamp 25% of the menu and create new signage, but these efforts proved insufficient as the long-neglected chain continued to lose ground to mass-market fast food operations.
While the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain was preserved, FAI did not have enough money to expand to new locations or revamp the brand. With the exception of one Howard Johnson's ice cream parlor in Puerto Rico, FAI never opened a new restaurant or expanded the chain. An existing restaurant in Canton, Massachusetts was remodeled as a prototype for a new era of Howard Johnson's restaurants, but the concept failed, and after less than a decade of operation, the prototype restaurant closed in 2000.
By 2005, there were fewer than eight surviving restaurants. A combination of no vision, no reinvestment of capital, aging restaurants, a stale menu, lack of marketing or new ideas, and competition from other chains had taken their toll; restaurants were closing their doors. FAI ceased operations in 2005, the same year that the Springfield, Vermont, location and the last New York City restaurant in the chain closed.
Cendant acquired the rights to operate and maintain the remaining Howard Johnson's restaurants. In 2006, Cendant sold them to La Mancha Group LLC, which had proposed an aggressive expansion of the restaurant chain that never materialised. After the Waterbury, Connecticut restaurant became The Brass House Restaurant in April 2007, only three locations remained. Cendant split into four smaller companies in 2006; its hotel group became Wyndham Worldwide while other pieces were spun off separately to become Avis Budget Group, Realogy, Travelport and Affinion Group.
A line of Howard Johnson-branded frozen foods disappeared from grocery stores after Fairfield Farms Kitchens shut down its Brockton, Massachusetts plant in 2006 and America's Kitchen of Atlanta, Georgia shut down in May 2008.
In spring 2012, one of the last three original Howard Johnson's restaurants closed, in Lake George, and was listed for sale. Television personality, chef and author Rachael Ray once worked at that site while living in Lake George as a teenager. By 2013 only two original restaurants remained open, but the Bangor (hotel and restaurant) no longer had the distinctive orange roof. While the highest tier in the hotel franchise (HoJo Hotel Plaza) does include a restaurant, there is no requirement that these replicate menus, format or branding of the former Howard Johnson restaurant chain.
With La Mancha Group LLC no longer active, Wyndham Hotel Group now owned the rights to the HoJo's food business as well as the Howard Johnson hotel chain. In 2013, Wyndham proposed a Howard Johnson Brand Reinvigoration which would bring select flavors of ice cream back to the hotels, adopt a new logo, phase out the multiple branding tiers and give the properties a facelift and redesign as a lower-midscale chain starting in 2015.
In August 2014, the Lake George restaurant regained the Howard Johnson's name when the lease was transferred from its original owners, DeSantis Enterprises, to John Larock. The restaurant reopened January 10, 2015, briefly bringing the number of locations back up to three. On March 31, 2015, the Lake Placid, N.Y., Howard Johnson's closed, leaving only two locations remaining. Then in September 2016, the Bangor restaurant closed, leaving the Lake George restaurant the very last location remaining out of the original 1,000-plus.
Last remaining restaurantEdit
The Lake George Howard Johnson's restaurant sign proclaims "Last One Standing", however in January 2017 its parcel of land went up for sale, putting its future in question. More so when on October 12, 2017, owner John Larock was arrested and charged with sexual abuse of 15 female employees, and a year later, began serving a six month jail sentence on October 31, 2018.. The restaurant continues to operate but opened limited days and hours. Despite retaining the original building and trademark name, its authenticity as a true Howard Johnson's restaurant has been put in question due to its dissimilar menu and negative reviews. With all the food commissionaires long since defunct, and no support or official connection with Wyndham, the restaurant operates entirely as an independent entity. Use of the Howard Johnson's restaurant name is still permitted due to a grandfather clause.
In popular cultureEdit
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was "one of the very first to carry 'product placements' for companies" such as Howard Johnson's, whose logos appear aboard the space station. The chain's lamplighter was also updated to the "Earthlight Room" on the space station, a Howard Johnson's lounge for passengers taking the Moon shuttle. In the scene where the Russian scientists share a drink with Dr. Floyd, it is shown that the restaurant chain servicing the space station is Howard Johnson's. The chain featured a 2001 tie-in in its children's menu.
A substantial portion of the Mad Men season 5 episode, "Far Away Places", involves Don and Megan Draper's trip to the Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Motor Lodge in Plattsburgh, New York. However, exteriors were actually shot in Baldwin Park, California. In response, Howard Johnson's launched a promotion referencing the appearance, to include a letter addressed to the character of Don Draper in the style of letterhead used in that era.
In the Academy Award Best Picture of 1955, Marty, Ernest Borgnine (winner of the Best Actor Oscar in the film) tries to make a date with a girl and recalls their last meeting where they had burgers and a milkshake was at Howard Johnson's.
A prominent interlude in the song-story, "Billy the Mountain" from the 1972 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention album Just Another Band from LA has Billy asking his wife Ethell, a tree growing out of his shoulder, if she wants to go to Howard-Johnson's for some clams.
In the film Blazing Saddles, a joke is made of recreating the town of Rock Ridge "right down to the orange roof on Howard Johnson's outhouse" and signage boasting "1 flavor". The character named Howard Johnson was played by John Hillerman.
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Like many famous Greeks, and not a few New Englanders, Thomas Soffron found his fortune at sea. An immigrant from Calamata, Greece, Soffron invented clam strips: battered and fried slices from the "foot" of hard-shelled sea clams (which held up better when frozen than did the coastal variety). For years Soffron Brothers Clam Co., based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, served as the exclusive supplier of clam strips to the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain, which sold the whole country on this Down East delicacy. Few HoJos are left, but the clam strip's enduring popularity stands as its creator's legacy. Soffron died on February 21, 2004 at age 96 in Ipswich, his hometown.
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