Road-trip icon Howard Johnson’s is closing his last restaurant

Howard Johnson’s last restaurant still in operation closed this week. Located in Lake George, New York, it had only been open sporadically since March. This closes a chain of restaurants that those on summer trips fondly remember seeing for almost exactly 100 years. It was the first and, for a time, the only franchise restaurant chain in the United States, and a slice of Americana.

Where was Howard Johnson’s last restaurant?

Howard Johnson Restaurant, Route 7, Burlington, VT | Getty

Lake George is a primarily summer vacation destination in the Adirondack Mountains. This summer-only circumstance is what some say ultimately caused the latter to close. But the Howard Johnson chain has had problems for years, one after another closing its doors.

At one time, it boasted over 1,000 restaurants scattered across America. The first opened in 1925 in Quincy, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Its ice cream was famous for using butter fat. It was so popular that Howard Deering Johnson opened an adjacent ice cream stand, and legend has it that it sold 14,000 cones a day for a time.

Why were road trips and Howard Johnson’s trips linked?

Howard Johnson’s Times Square restaurant in 1971 | Getty

In the mid-1930s, Howard Johnson’s restaurant, known as “HoJos”, began to expand into franchise agreements. Remember, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Burger King; none of these now familiar restaurant chains existed and would not exist for a few decades. The Howard Johnson chain became part of Americana, a staple of roadscapes. Its orange roofs, cupolas and weather vane on top were like a beacon for motorists.

Most franchises have been purchased by family businesses. Although each restaurant is similar, their service was unique, in part because of this family ownership. As for the kitchen, it started with hot dogs, hamburgers and various sandwiches, without forgetting the ice creams for dessert. But even then, unusual offerings like peanut butter and bacon, grilled fried clam rolls and sardine sandwiches added variety.

When families travel, why go to Howard Johnson’s?

by Howard Johnson

Closed Lake George Howard Johnson’s | Facebook

With the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, New Jersey Turnpike, and Ohio Turnpike, after World War II, a new opportunity to bring HoJos to travelers helped the franchise explode. Placing them strategically at gas station exits meant instant on and off convenience.

Then, in 1954, he opened his first RV, but that’s also around the same time that McDonald’s started franchising its drive-ins. If the restaurant outing model didn’t attract most road trips, having a place to sleep for the night surely did. These motel chains have become another staple of American highways. In fact, that part of the Howard Johnson company still exists, now owned by Wyndham Hotels.

When did the chain peak?

by Howard Johnson

New England’s Last Howard Johnson Restaurant in Bangor, Maine | Getty

But these new fast food restaurants have begun to revolutionize the American travel landscape. Cheaper food meant that to stay competitive, Howard Johnson reduced its premium ingredients. But by the early 1970s, the chain peaked with over 1,000 restaurants and over 500 motorhomes.

In 1979, the company accepted a $650 million offer to sell. Soon many restaurants began to close due to poor performance. In 1989, it was sold, marked by the closure of franchises and changes of owners. Marriott Corporation began buying locations in the early 1980s for the busiest valuable lots. From there it was all downhill.

Although this last standing HoJos has the name, it was actually a former franchise that had been transformed into “Lake George Family Restaurant” in 2015. When the lease was transferred to a new owner, he chose to call it “Howard Johnson’s”, but his only connection to the chain was the name. He had no direct connection to the infamous orange roof restaurants. Yet, it was the last restaurant with this iconic name.

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