When Howard Johnson's Was America's Home Away From Home

Howard Johnson's was a beacon for hungry travelers.
Howard Johnson's was a beacon for hungry travelers. / Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On a 2012 episode of Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and wife Megan (Jessica Paré) are dispatched to Plattsburgh, New York, to get a better sense of the atmosphere found in the restaurants of potential client Howard Johnson’s.

For many viewers, the scene was probably unfamiliar—a bright orange-roofed eatery famous for fried clams and an incredible 28 flavors of ice cream. But for those who lived through Howard Johnson’s heyday, it was almost as ubiquitous a sight as rest stops or gas stations. As America’s arterial highways expanded, so did “HoJo’s,” which served classic comfort food and offered affordable hotel accommodations. For families hitting the road for summer trips, it was a home away from home—a breakfast counter, casual dining, and ice cream detour in one.

Raising the Roof

Howard Johnson's was an early franchise success story.
Howard Johnson's was an early franchise success story. / Jim Griffin, Flickr // Public Domain

Unlike the fictitious Betty Crocker, the food empire of Howard Johnson’s was named after a real Howard Johnson. Born in 1897, Johnson rolled and sold cigars for his father’s business. When the senior Johnson passed in 1921, Johnson inherited both his business and his accompanying debts.

To turn things around, Johnson decided to seek opportunities outside of tobacco. In 1925, the Boston entrepreneur opened his first eatery, which was devoted to selling newspapers and ice cream, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Serving ice cream was hardly a novel idea, but Johnson had a strategy. After acquiring a recipe from a local German pushcart ice cream vendor, Johnson doubled the amount of butterfat in his flavors. The highly decadent treat went down smoothly thanks to freezers that kept the consistency smooth. Ice cream stands followed, both on beaches and on roadsides. (Despite the variety of flavors, vanilla was his perennial bestseller.)

But ice cream was not his sole interest. By 1929, Johnson had plunged fully into the restaurant business.

This first location, also in Quincy, benefited from a controversy. Nearby, a Eugene O’Neill play about abortion, Strange Interlude, was playing. It drew the elite of Boston and led to spillover business for Johnson, who served theatergoers flocking to the scandalous performance plenty of his food and ice cream.

At the time Johnson was looking to expand to other restaurant locations, the franchise concept was uncommon. The McDonald brothers wouldn’t meet Ray Kroc—the man who would commandeer their McDonald’s restaurant and turn it into a worldwide brand—for decades. But Johnson was more nimble than the restaurant practices of the era. When he couldn’t afford to open a second location himself, he allowed a relative named Reginald Sprague to do it instead.

The idea caught on. By 1940, one Howard Johnson’s had turned into 130 on the East Coast alone. The company had even secured a deal to be the restaurant of choice for service plazas along the newly-opened Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Long before McDonald’s Golden Arches were dotting streets, Johnson used the distinctive design scheme of his Rufus Nims-designed restaurant—a slanted orange roof framing plate-glass windows—to make it distinctive and familiar. Drivers didn’t need to search for a HoJo’s; its increasingly familiar design acted as its own beacon, drawing customers in with an aesthetic that could be spotted from a distance.

Inside, Formica tabletops and a curtained dining area lent the restaurant a lived-in feel. Strict policies about uniforms and advertising came from Johnson’s store “bible,” which helped created consistency.

Johnson also commissioned a logo, Simple Simon and the Pieman, which depicted a child and his dog looking very enthusiastic about a baker’s delivery. The graphic appeared on neon lights and on dinnerware. It also perpetuated Johnson’s notion that every HoJo’s should be family-friendly, which wasn’t always the case for the highway greasy spoon diners of the era.

The design lent each HoJo’s credibility with consumers and made the life of franchisees easier. “You could put one at the end of a dirt road in the woods back here and you’d do business,” onetime owner Carl DeSantis told Eater in 2017. “Howard Johnson’s was the king of the road. You could make money anywhere ... A lot of guys ended up with Howard Johnson’s restaurants that wouldn’t have made it with any other brand or as independents.”

On the Menu

A typical HoJo’s menu seemed directed at carnivores and the lactose tolerant. In addition to the butterfat ice cream, diners could choose between the charcoal broiled half-spring chicken, charcoal broiled sirloin steak, open tenderloin steak sandwiches, cube steak, and ham and eggs. Hot dogs were frankforts and came with potato salad. Even the kid’s menu offered roast beef and gravy.

If HoJo’s had a trademark dish, it was the fried clams. The dish was the idea of the Saffron brothers out of Massachusetts, who removed the bellies from the clams. (Those would be used for the clam chowder.) Johnson loved the clams so much that the Saffrons' business grew to seven processing plants, all of which were working to service the demands of Johnson’s franchisees.

Above all, Johnson knew that his patrons wanted simplicity. "If you say Halibut Dante, the average American will never buy it," he once said. "But if you say halibut with cream and tomato sauce, he'll not only buy it, but he'll say it's great."

To maintain consistency across locations, HoJo’s developed a system in which food would be made and then frozen for shipping and later reheating. While that preparation may sound slightly dystopian, the dishes themselves were the work of very capable chefs.

In 1959, Johnson hired Jacques Pépin and colleague Pierre Franey after sampling Pépin’s wares at the fancy French eatery Le Pavillon. Despite his credentials, Johnson asked Pépin to work as a line cook at a Howard Johnson’s in Rego Park, Queens, to get a feel for the food and the clientele.

Pépin busied himself learning the finer aspects of macaroni and cheese and hamburgers before Johnson let him experiment. Beef burgundy and other stews followed. A typical prep day might mean 1000 turkeys and 10 tons of frankforts for distribution to franchisees. While it was all American comfort food, it was prepared with care by French masters.

Great food coupled with expanded amenities—Johnson opened his first restaurant and lodge in 1953 in Savannah, Georgia—led to HoJo’s becoming one of the strongest brands of the mid-20th century.

Much, if not all, of the company's success was due to Johnson's perfectionism. He was prone to visiting locations unannounced to make sure that his standards were being met. It was not unlike Santa Claus coming to inspect a toy store.

Once, a franchisee in Cleveland, Ohio, caught Johnson in the restaurant's freezer. Not knowing who he was, he phoned the police.

"I'm Howard Johnson," Johnson said.

"And I'm Christopher Columbus," the responding police officer replied.

Changing Tastes

Howard Johnson's lured in drivers thanks to its distinctive orange roof.
Howard Johnson's lured in drivers thanks to its distinctive orange roof. / Jim Griffin, Flickr // Public Domain

While Howard Johnson's stands as a tremendous business success story, many of its operators chose poorly when it came to being on the right side of history.

In 1957, two Black men walked into a Howard Johnson's restaurant near Dover, Delaware, and asked to be served. They were told to leave. The location, like several businesses of the time, was segregated.

One of the men refused service happened to be Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the finance minister of Ghana, who was accompanied by his secretary. The rebuff caused an international controversy, particularly in light of the fact that Gbedemah had just recently hosted then-vice president Richard Nixon in Ghana.

"If the Vice President of the U.S. can have a meal in my house when he is in Ghana," Gbedemah said, "then I cannot understand why I must receive this treatment at a roadside restaurant in America."

President Dwight Eisenhower issued an apology; Howard Johnson's executives told the Dover owner that segregation was not welcome at the chain's locations. But in April 1961, a second incident followed: African diplomat William Fitzjohn was denied service at a Howard Johnson's in Hagertown, Maryland. Now it was President John F. Kennedy's turn to apologize. But some Howard Johnson's continued the practice, inviting protests. In 1962, four students in Durham, North Carolina, staged a sit-in at the restaurant and were sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Again, Howard Johnson's reiterated that they did not have a segregation policy, but the matter didn't fully settle until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places.

Howard Johnson's troubles didn't end there. The arrival of Johnson’s son, “Bud” Johnson, as president in 1959 eventually led to cost-cutting and increasing demands for profits due to a public stock offering. While HoJo's quality was dipping, fast food chains were growing. Rising fuel prices in the 1970s further dented Howard Johnson's business, which relied heavily on long-distance highway travelers. As more people boarded airplanes, fewer of them drove by a HoJo’s.

By the 1980s, Howard Johnson’s was being passed around from one new owner to another. The motor lodges were separated from the restaurants. (A number of Howard Johnson hotels—minus the "S"—are still in operation and owned by Wyndham Worldwide.) With each corporate step, locations dwindled. By 2017, the franchise that could once be visualized as 1000 bright orange dots on a map was down to just one restaurant location in Lake George, New York—a sight so rare it's now relegated to the sets of period television shows.