What does ‘28 Flavors’ mean to you? If you’re of a certain age, it means the restaurant founded by Howard Johnson. Just the mention of the name brings to mind bright orange roofs with aqua cupolas, clam strips, frankfurts and, of course, ice cream.
From modest beginnings as a soda fountain in Quincy, Mass., the pioneering restaurant chain grew to more than 1,000 stores. At its peak it was the most popular restaurant in America. Now it is back down to one remaining store in Lake George, N.Y.
Howard Johnson’s traveled the arc of the American century: Born of the Roaring 1920s, walloped and nearly toppled during the Great Depression, resilient and lean during the war years, and booming again into the 1970s. It finally faded away under a corporate ownership that passed the name from hand to hand through a series of financial transactions.
While the Howard Johnson motel chain still carries on the name, the restaurants appear headed for the history books. But what a run they had.
Howard Johnson Discovers Butterfat
Howard Deering Johnson famously started his empire in 1925 as a small soda fountain. Wrestling with the question of how to increase sales, he believed improving the ice cream was the answer. So he took matters into his own hands, literally, making his own ice cream with more butterfat content and better ingredients. The results were a hit.
Soon he had to wrestle with the challenge of long lines at his Wollaston store. He also had to keep the homemade flavor while creating it in greater and greater quantities. A second store in downtown Quincy soon followed, and Johnson began dreaming of an empire.
The stock market crash of 1929 put his plans on hold, and he worked hard to just keep the stores operating. But he soon stumbled on a new concept. He persuaded a businessman to build a dairy bar/ice cream stand in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod. They agreed Howard Johnson would supply the name and the products and his partner would sell them.
Visitors to the beaches of Cape Cod were thrilled to see the familiar name from the South Shore. The new outlet was a success. That expansion was the first step in a franchising empire that soon made Howard Johnson’s a common sight in Massachusetts.
Simple Simon, Super Success
In the 1930s, Johnson would create the logo that would stay with the restaurant forever. “Simple Simon and the Pieman,” based on the nursery rhyme, would spend the next 60 years stamped on plates, floors, walls, lamps, you name it.
By 1935, Massachusetts had 25 Howard Johnson’s ice cream stands. The brand soon moved into Connecticut, and Howard Johnson was on a roll. He believed in a promising future for his restaurants because of new and better roads, Americans’ love of travel and his quality brand.
He created the Howard Johnson Bible to instruct franchise managers and employees how to run the restaurant in meticulous detail. It covered everything from food preparation to dress and decoration.
Johnson tested all the recipes down to the last detail before he rolled them out to the restaurants. The lessons of his early experiments with ice cream stayed with him. He wanted to ensure the homemade taste survived the process of scaling up from one meal to thousands of meals before he shipped them off to his partners.
“This is what I like best,” he would tell an interviewer, “help a good man to make a go of it himself.”
One such case was the Soffron Brothers of Ipswich, Mass. Intrigued by the brothers’ invention of “Tender-sweet Fried Clams,” clams with the bellies removed, Howard Johnson decided the product was the perfect way to sell clams in his restaurant. He bought the idea from the brothers and made an arrangement for them to provide the clams for all his restaurants.
The Soffron brothers business grew to seven processing plants, stretching from Nova Scotia to Maryland, to meet the demands of the growing Howard Johnson empire.
World War II put a second dent in Johnson’s plans. His food supplies were needed by the troops. The gasoline and rubber that fueled America’s wanderlust was gobbled up by the military. His business went into hibernation, as most of the restaurants closed, and he focused his efforts on supplying food to the military, defense plants and schools.
At war’s end, however, his business was still standing and ready to serve an American public that was desperate for a return to the luxuries it had known before the war.
Again, Howard Johnson had a goal: each Howard Johnson’s customer should experience the same high quality and the same foods. He believed weary travelers would throng to his restaurants to find an echo of home in their familiar comforts. They did.
On the Road Again
Howard Johnson himself prospered. A workaholic, he married four times and maintained homes in Manhattan and Milton, Mass. He was chauffeured in a black Cadillac with the license plate HJ-28.
Understanding that car travelers were the key to his business, Howard Johnson bid on and won the rights to operate his restaurants on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes.
Throughout his rise, Howard Johnson consistently tried to keep the business fresh, often showing an eye for young talent. He chose interior designer Sister Parish, who would later work on the White House, to create the interior decorations of his restaurants in the 1930s. Christian Dior would later design waitress outfits. And of course he paid close attention to the chefs who made the menus.
In 1961, as American tastes were growing more sophisticated, Johnson saw the need to add a French influence to his menus. As a regular at New York City’s premier French restaurant, Le Pavillon, Howard Johnson knew where to find the talent he needed.
He approached chef Pierre Franey, later the New York Times food columnist, and hired him away from the restaurant to be his vice president in charge of developing new menu items.
Franey knew his coworker at the restaurant, Jacques Pepin, was also unhappy there. And he persuaded Pepin to join the company with the offer of regular hours and pay. Long before Pepin became the celebrated television star he is today, he spent a few months learning Howard Johnson’s from the inside out as a line cook at a Howard Johnson’s in Queens. Such was the cachet of the company at the time, he chose Howard Johnson’s over an offer from Joseph P. Kennedy to be his son’s chef at the White House.
In his memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Pepin recalls the challenges of creating recipes that would produce 3,000 gallons of clam chowder at a time. (If you’d like to know how to recreate it today, you can find his recipe here.) And he noted that Howard Johnson, with his relentless drive for quality, was the engine behind the restaurants’ success.
The standardization that people take for granted today when they visit a TGI Friday’s or a Red Lobster were the brainchild of Howard Johnson.
Eventually, however, tastes changed and Howard Johnson’s struggled to keep up with them.
Comedienne Lily Tomlin worked at the famous Times Square Howard Johnson’s before she became a star. Her comedy routine about the regimented starched uniform and paper cap she had to wear became one of her signatures.
The television show Mad Men perfectly captured the restaurant’s changing image in a 2012 episode. Forty-year-old Don Draper and his new 27-year-old trophy bride Megan take a weekend getaway to a Howard Johnson’s. His love for the place’s hominess is matched by her disdain for its lack of hip sophistication.
The End of the Road
Inevitably, the 1970s caught up with the Howard Johnson business model. This third blow to the company was too much for it to overcome. The gas shortages kept people from travelling, and the recession stripped them of their spending power.
Johnson died in 1972. His son, Howard Brennan Johnson, was now head of the company. He realized Howard Johnson’s couldn’t afford to spend what it had to maintain his father’s version of the restaurant – not with low-priced competitors like McDonald’s nipping at its heals.
He tried to cheapen the menu. Then he tried expanding the business with new restaurant brands and had some success. In 1979 he decided to sell the company, with its more than 1,000 restaurants (roughly 25 percent still in the hands of franchise holders). The price was an astounding $630 million paid by British investors who perhaps failed to see how radically times and tastes were changing. They would soon learn.
With the American economy struggling through the early ‘80s, the restaurants and hotels again changed hands in 1985 to Marriott Corp. Marriott had no interest in the restaurants and spun them off.
Several attempts at relaunching and rebranding the restaurants never got traction, and from 2000 to 2010, they slowly disappeared. New owners repainted their orange roofs to match a new business décor or simply left them to fade in the sun atop empty buildings. In Times Square in 2005, the iconic Howard Johnson’s finally closed in a much-mourned passing.
One restaurant remains, in Lake George, N.Y.
Jacques Pepin shared his recipe for homemade clam chowder that tastes just like the chowder you ate at Howard Johnson’s. Just click here. This story was updated in 2021.
Images: Howard Johnson By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40156080.