You may remember the orange roofs that characterized the once ubiquitous restaurants that offered signature dishes such as macaroni and cheese, fried clam strips and “frankforts” — along with 28 flavors of ice cream. Or you may never have heard of them, since Howard Johnson’s heyday was in the 1970s.
The chain, founded as an ice cream shop in 1925, grew rapidly as the interstate highway system took shape in the 1960s and families hit the road for are-we-there-yet vacations. By 1975, the company boasted more than 1,000 restaurants and 500 motels — “motor lodges” — in 42 states and Canada.
But a series of deals over the next two decades essentially dismantled the chain. The motels were split off and sold. The company-owned restaurants — valued more for their real estate — were closed. And the franchised restaurants, which won their freedom to operate independently under the Howard Johnson’s name, survived but failed to thrive. Instead, their numbers declined steadily so that by 2000, some two dozen were left; by 2005, just a half dozen.
Today, there are only two, in Lake Placid and in Bangor, Maine. A third had operated seasonally in Lake George from May to October. But at lunchtime last Friday, the parking lot was empty and the restaurant was dark when I got off Northway Exit 21 to check out the site, where food celebrity Rachael Ray once worked.
A sign leaning against the building advertised it for sale; a notice on the door directed visitors to a couple of nearby restaurants. On RealtyUSA.com, the restaurant, at 7,000 square feet and fully equipped, is listed at $1.2 million.
The fan website HoJoLand.com beats a drum for resurrecting the chain, taking note of the revival of two 1970s contemporaries: Gino’s Hamburger & Chicken, back with five restaurants in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and Marriott Corp.’s Hot Shoppes (a Howard Johnson’s clone), planned as part of a hotel under construction in Washington, D.C.
“What will it take for Wyndham Worldwide to realize that now is the perfect time to bring back HoJo’s restaurants?” asks the fan site.
Wyndham, which operates the Howard Johnson — no “s” — motel chain and now owns the rights to the restaurants, may be listening. The company, which didn’t respond to my request for comment, told a Massachusetts newspaper earlier this month that it’s taking a look at the value represented by the restaurant brand.
But resurrecting a chain like Howard Johnson’s — popular decades ago — may be difficult when few under the age of 40 are aware of it, says Sanjay Putrevu, a professor of marketing in the School of Business at the University at Albany.
“It has no connection with younger people at all,” said Putrevu, whose areas of expertise include consumer behavior. And for older generations, appealing to a Howard Johnson’s nostalgia won’t work “unless you’ve actually eaten at a [HoJo’s] restaurant,” he added.
Told that Gino’s seemed to be using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness among customers too young to remember the original restaurants, Putrevu offered, “That’s not a bad idea.” But how we patronize restaurants and even the kinds of food we favor will change over time, he said. The All-American menu of yesteryear has given way to a more ethnic mix today. Meantime, resurrecting Howard Johnson’s would mean “going back to the way we were,” Putrevu said.
“In restaurants, it’s very, very complicated.”