School’s out for the summer in just a few days, and after the grueling winter of lockdown, the whole family’s more than likely ready to get out and explore the world again. With the record number of people getting vaccinated and the number of COVID cases gradually decreasing, it indeed looks like there’s a glimmer of hope that we all could be hitting the open road for our family vacations sometime this summer.

Howard Johnson’s Restaurant ad circa 1950s

Most of you have probably been planning what you’ve been calling your Ultimate Family Road Trip since about the fifth week of lockdown last year. It’s something that’s helped many of us get through all those weeks of cabin fever. However, for those of you still planning your trip and those who’ve just started planning, there’s a place we’d like to suggest you add to your family road trip itinerary. It’s a little restaurant in Lake George, New York, that used to be owned by a fellow named Howard Johnson, and it’s well worth the drive.

It Started at a Drugstore

Howard Johnson’s (affectionately known as “HoJo” by fans and nostalgic raconteurs) started in 1925 when a 28-year old Howard Deering Johnson borrowed $20,000 dollars and bought a pharmacy with a recently installed soda fountain. Soon after opening, Johnson noticed that the soda fountain was where he was making most of his money. As a result, he decided to start making and selling ice cream using a recipe that called for using butterfat which gave the ice cream a rich, delicious taste.

Howard Johnson’s drug store where it all started.
Photo via differenthistory.fandom.com

As demand grew, Johnson would go on to make 28 flavors of ice cream; in fact, “28 Flavors” would become the first slogan of Howard Johnson’s. When Johnson was asked about the reason he stopped at 28 flavors in a later interview, he replied, “At the time I thought I had created every ice cream flavor in the world.”

Howard Johnson’s list of 28 flavors. The list would change frequently with Johnson replacing those that weren’t selling so well with new flavors.
Photo via Google Books screen capture.

And, indeed, the world seemed to love his ice cream, As a result, Howard start expanding his operation, selling hot dogs, ice cream and cold drinks out of little concession stands up and down the beaches of Massachusetts.  Soon he made enough to open his own restaurant in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1929. The menu included fried clams, baked beans, chicken pot pies, hot dogs, soft drinks, and of course, 28 flavors of ice cream.

The restaurant was well received and business was good; however, what happened next would skyrocket Howard Johnson’s into infamy.

Blame It on a Strange Interlude

In 1929, Boston Mayor Malcolm Nichols declared Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude immoral. As a result, he banned it from ever being performed in the city, much to the disappointment of the Theater Guild who planned on performing it the city later that year. However, not wanting to cause a big fuss, the Theater Guild simply moved the production to nearby Quincy.

Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude help Howard Johnson’s become a success.
Illustration: Public Domain

Strange Interlude was a long play – five hours long to be exact – with a dinner break included in the middle. Howard Johnson’s restaurant just happened to be the closest restaurant to the theater and that’s where hundreds of well-to-do Bostonians gathered to eat during the play’s dinner intermission. As a result, they told their friends about Howard Johnson’s restaurant; those friends told their friends and so on. Soon, Howard Johnson’s restaurant was the most popular restaurant in all of New England.

Howard Johnson Expands

With the popularity of the Quincy restaurant, Johnson saw the opportunity to expand his business – an idea that was put on hold until after the Great Depression. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1932 when Howard convinced a close acquaintance to open up a second restaurant under the conditions that it met his exact specifications. Howard didn’t own this restaurant, however, instead, franchised out in what would be one of the first franchising contracts in America.

Needless to say, the popularity of these first two restaurants soon led to 130 Howard Johnson’s restaurants throughout all of New England by 1939. Fourteen years after there were 170 Howard Johnson’s locations nationwide employing 10,000 employees and serving over a million-and-a-half people a year.

It was around this time that Hojo got it’s iconic look – the orange roofs and aqua cupola – as shown in this illustration for a magazine advertisement.

It was also around this time that the iconic look of Howard Johnson’s first appeared. The interiors were designed by wealthy socialite turned interior designer Dorothy May Kinnicutt Parish (who also went under the pseudonym Sister Parish) who did everything from the walls to the placemats in HoJo’s famous aqua.

The orange roofs, cupolas and weathervanes topped with Howard Johnson’s famous “Simple Simon and the Pie Man” logo (designed by artist John Alcott) also came about at this time which, along with their iconic fiberglass signs sculpted by Charles Pizzano, made it easier for folks to find the legendary restaurants which now were numbered at 200.

Casualty of War

However, things would take an unexpected turn during World War II and Howard Johnson would become a casualty of war rationing. He would be left with only 12 stores left 1944. The only way he kept his head above water at this time was by serving commissary food to war workers and U.S. Army recruits. He also won the bid to service drivers at service station turn offs along the Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Connecticut turnpikes, which helped him stay in business as well.   However, you have to give credit to Howard Johnson for his tenacity. After limping through the war, the first thing he did was make plans to build 200 new restaurants.

HoJo Hotels

Johnson’s plans paid off. There were over 400 hundred Howard Johnson restaurants located in 32 states by 1954 when Howard Johnson decided to expand the company once again, this time into the hospitality business. He opened the first Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge – with rooms and gate lodge designed by Rufus Nims and Karl Koch – complete with adjacent Howard Johnson’s Restaurants and a new partner for Simple Simon and the Pie Man – a fellow called “the Lamplighter”.

A typical mid-century Howard Johnson’s Motor lodge with its A-frame style office featuring its orange roof and aqua cupola as well. This one was located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Edited photo taken from a 1970s travel brochure.

Four years later, Howard Deering Johnson would hand the restaurant and motor lodge empire that bore his name over to his son, 26-year-old Howard Brennan Johnson.  Howard the Elder would, however, continue to advise his son until his death at the age of 75 in 1972. By the time of his death, there were more than 1,000 restaurants and more than 500 motor lodges located throughout 42 states and Canada. However, with the energy crisis came a shift in the company’s focus from travelers to local centers of population.

The Benefits of Being a Kid

This was the time that Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers most likely remember most as HoJos began to cater to families with their affordable prices, and kids specifically with their birthday club promotion that gave kids balloons, lollipops a and a free-meal for their birthday.

What could have been more fun in 1964 than a party at Howard Johnson’s? Clam strips for everyone, Minnie!
Illustration from a 1964 magazine advertisement

Kids menus also kept children entertained with maps of the United States and some even learned about the metric system from them. There was even a 28 Flavors Club where kids were given a coupon with the names of each of the 28 flavors of Howard Johnson’s ice cream printed on it. When you ate a particular flavor – say Tutti Frutti – it was checked off of the list. Once you tried all 28 flavors, you got a free ice cream cone.

The Beginning of the End

Even the family friendly prices and kids’ promotions couldn’t help Howard Johnson’s survive the 1974 Oil Embargo, however.  At the time, 85% of their revenue came from travelers. With oil and gas prices rising higher and higher, fewer travelers on the road meant fewer profits for HoJo. Additionally, the cost of serving high-quality food became much more costly than it was for the rising fast-food franchises of the time like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Starting around this time, they did, however, try to market a line of Howard Johnson’s frozen foods (including their world-famous clam strips) along with private label sodas that just didn’t catch on with consumers.

Though they didn’t offer home delivery, there was a time when you could take home some of those delicious Howard Johnson’s Tendersweet Fried Clams from your grocer’s freezer.
Photo: Pinterest

By the end of the decade, Johnson sold his father’s company for $630 million. Between 1979 and 1982, Howard Johnson’s Restaurants and Motor Lodges were owned by the Imperial Group, finally ending up in the hands of Marriott Corporation in 1982. Because they already owned Bob’s Big Boy chains, Marriott was interested in rebranding the Howard Johnson’s  Restaurants into Bob’s Big Boy restaurants. However, once Marriott found out how costly the conversions were, they chose to close and sell off the rest of the Howard Johnson’s restaurants as quickly as possible.

By 2000, only 8 restaurants were still standing, and though the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge brand still lives on today, now owned by Wyndham, only one Howard Johnson’s Restaurant is still operating. It’s located in Lake George, New York.

Last One Standing

Despite withstanding a World War, a crippling energy crisis and a brutal acquisition that led to its near extinction, it may be a tiny virus that takes down the last standing Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Despite good reviews on its food and service, it’s the subsequent COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines that have kept people away these days. Now with the country soon opening back up and more people than ever planning road trips for the summer of 2021, perhaps it will give the restaurant one last hurrah before it’s gone forever.

Last Howard Johnson’s standing in Lake George, New York
Photo: Screen capture via Google Maps

Take your family while there’s still time, Fill up on those delicious clam strips you remember, but be sure to save some room for one of the 28 flavors of ice cream for dessert. Plan to take your family to HoJo this summer and get a real taste of nostalgia while you still can  – only at the last Howard Johnson’s Restaurant still standing.

Howard Johnson’s maybe be your “Highway Host”, but while you’re planning your next big family adventure by road, don’t forget to plan a few stops on your way at that other icon of the American road – Stuckey’s! Come on by and grab a few pecan treats like our famous Stuckey’s pecan log rolls and pecan divinity. And let’s not forget our wide variety of road trip treats that includes our delicious flavored pecans, mouthwatering popcorn and other classic candies you’ll remember from childhood. Go ahead try our Stuckey’s branded hats and t-shirts on for size, too. They make great souvenirs for you or the folks back home.

No Stuckey’s locations on your way? Well, be sure you can get all of the delicious road trip snacks for kids and adults by ordering the fun for the whole family Stuckey’s “Road Trip Revival” Gift Box! Each is packed with all the great Stuckey’s merchandise you’ll need to have a fun and exciting road trip including:

3 – 2 oz. Pecan Log Roll; 1 – 8 oz. Caramel Popcorn; 1 – 4 oz. T&S Pecans; 1 – Campfire Travel Enamel Mug; 1 Rubber Gator; 1 – Coonskin Cap; 1 – Stuckey’s Bumper Sticker; and 1 – Red Drinking Bird.

And don’t forget to let Pop know he hasn’t lost any of his mojo by getting him the Stuckey’s Daddy-O Day Gift Box this year. Order now to get it by Father’s Day. Click on the link for more info.

Order yours today and have it delivered before your next road trip – only from stuckeys.com!

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!