Lake George Howard Johnson’s almost a lone survivor

Howard Johnson’s restaurants and motor lodges were once an institution, dotting almost every major A
The last Howard Johnson's restaurant in the nation, located in Lake George.
The last Howard Johnson's restaurant in the nation, located in Lake George.

A previous version of this story omitted a second Howard Johnson’s Restaurant in the United States — one in Bangor, Maine.

LAKE GEORGE — Howard Johnson’s restaurants and motor lodges were once an institution, dotting almost every major American motorway. They were the place to stop and get a meal on long road trips, and they were often the vacation destination for families.

Today, however, with stiff competition from fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Howard Johnson’s restaurants are on the very brink of extinction. In the United States today, there are two left: one is on Route 9 in Lake George.

Howard Johnson got his start in 1925 as the owner of a small drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts. He noted that the soda fountain in his store was the most profitable part of the business. Inspired, he opened several stands along the Massachusetts coast, selling soft drinks, ice cream and hot dogs.

Johnson opened his first sit-down restaurant shortly before the stock market crash of 1929. The crash and subsequent Great Depression slowed business, but he was nonetheless able to open his second restaurant in Orleans, Massachusetts, in 1932.

By the late 1970s, the HoJo’s empire consisted of about 1,000 restaurants and 500 hotels. The name Howard Johnson still appears on many hotels, but the restaurants were slowly driven out by the rise of fast-food chains.

The Lake George location, which first opened in 1952, nearly followed the rest of the restaurants. Shut down in 2010 and put up for sale, it seemed likely to be demolished to make way for a new business, but in April 2014, Jonathan LaRock purchased the property and began restoring the restaurant so it could reopen.

The restaurant reopened in January and retains its signature orange roof. The interior has also been left just as it was when the restaurant first opened in 1952.

LaRock knew the Howard Johnson’s in Lake George very well. In the early ’80s, he worked there as a prep cook. He said this was partly why he did not want to see the restaurant destroyed.

After he purchased the property, LaRock said he had to spend an additional $200,000 to replace the entire kitchen and to ready the restaurant for opening.

“It took us from last April to now to put it all back together,” he said.

Though the restaurant is open for business, it still needs some work.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get it back to where I like it,” said LaRock.

Despite the cost of getting the restaurant up and running again, he said business has been very good so far. He said many of his customers remember the franchise from eating there in the past.

“They remember stuff like the fish fry on Friday nights, so a lot of them come back for that,” said LaRock.

Now that warm weather is here, the restaurant has been hosting car shows every Tuesday evening, which he said has brought in a lot of business.

LaRock is not the only one who remembers the Howard Johnson’s of old. Cindy Bosley, who came in for breakfast Thursday morning, said she used to work at a HoJo’s in Albany to earn extra money when she was younger. She said when she heard this was the last one, she had to come and visit.

“I’m glad they kept it,” she said. “It’s a lot of really great history.”

Another customer, Dave Camppell, said he remembered going to Howard Johnson’s as a kid. He said he didn’t know if they were still around until he came for breakfast Thursday.

“I knew I hadn’t seen them around in a long time, but I didn’t know it was the last one,” he said.

LaRock said most of his customers are older because they are the generations that remember Howard Johnson’s restaurants from their youth.

“The younger generations just don’t remember what Howard Johnson’s were all about,” said LaRock.

Starting a week from today, June 15, the restaurant will be open around the clock for the rest of the summer.

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