One of the last remaining Howard Johnson’s is closing

by on April 26, 2015 at 2:28 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

What was once one of America’s most iconic and popular chains is now down to just two locations. According to NPR, one of the last three Howard Johnson’s restaurants closed its doors this week. Located in Lake Placid, N.Y., the restaurant opened in April of 1956. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes that the owners of the Lake Placid location are getting old and their children are “not interested” in taking over. So, they sold the restaurant to new owners who plan to turn the building into a “high-end roadside diner.”

Via the excellent Mark Thorson, there is more here.  You can read the Yelp reviews here.

1 Fazal Majid April 26, 2015 at 4:55 am

French President Jacques Chirac, in an address to the joint US Congress in 1996, reminisced about how he could never have imagined the honor of addressing Congress back when he held a summer job waiting tables at Howard Johnson’s.

2 AB April 26, 2015 at 9:32 am

Its a less good story if he mentions that he was also attending a Harvard summer school.

3 The Other Jim April 26, 2015 at 10:06 am

My only memory of Howard Johnson’s is on summer road trips as a child, and how at each and every one of them, it took roughly 90 minutes to be served toast and orange juice at breakfast.

The fact that they hired Chirac explains a lot.

4 Diana April 26, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Funny – the great chef Jacques Pepin came to the US to work for Howard Johnson’s.

They had good ice cream.

Sic transit gloria mundi!

5 rayward April 26, 2015 at 7:06 am

Howard Johnson’s was also a motel chain, the main competitor of Holiday Inn for tourists who flooded the roadways after WWII, especially after the interstate highways were built, the motel usually built behind the easily recognizable restaurant. HJ and HI had this is common: sameness – each location looked the same. This concept, sameness, eventually found its way into fast food restaurants, coffee shops, and every other successful chain, so wherever you went, there you were. Or dull to those who view the homogenization of America as anything but progress. Motels, the distinguishing characteristic being that the door to the room opens to the outside, went out of favor with the obsession with crime, replaced by the cheap box hotels that now line the interstates and major highways. Many of the former HJs and HIs have been converted into daily “apartments” for those who would otherwise be homeless. Think about that cultural phenomenon: HJs and HIs, which at one time were signs of affluence for America’s growing middle class, have become the last refuge of a descending middle class.

6 Slocum April 26, 2015 at 8:27 am

The first American restaurant chain predated WWII by many decades — in fact, it predated automobiles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Harvey_Company

As for homogenization — cheer up! You’re living in a golden era of de-homogenization. I’m reminded of a bit from ‘A River Runs Through It’ where Norman Maclean is nostalgic for a time when not all beer was made in Milwaukee or St Louis. If he’d lived a couple decades longer, he’d have seen a beer renaissance that eclipsed the beloved local breweries of his youth (which, in truth, though locally owned, made lightweight lagers nearly indistinguishable from what was cranked out in Milwaukee and St Louis). And the same de-homogenization is happening in the hospitality industry in the era of AirBnB, VRBO, TripAdvisor, etc. Chains made sense to travelers, in part, because they lacked local knowledge and were concerned about accidentally ending up at the Bates Motel. Now, though, not only is it easy to find out about the quality of hotels and restaurants while traveling, it’s easy to find other kinds of lodging and be confident of its quality — so when staying anywhere for more than a couple of days, my wife and I nearly always rent a house, condo, apartment, or cabin rather than checking into a hotel. Finally, I don’t think the end of Howard Johnson has much cultural meaning, really. Howard Johnson died but Holliday Inn and Best Western didn’t (just as K-Mart is dying but not Walmart). And converting dumpy old motels into SRO apartments is just one example of what happens to old buildings when they age (and aren’t worth a major, expensive remodeling job).

7 rayward April 26, 2015 at 9:50 am

airbnb, uber, and the rest are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. I suppose that’s better than the sameness (uniformity) that marked the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, airbnb and others openly violate zoning, licensing, sales tax, and other laws, which must warm a libertarian’s heart, but that’s cold comfort to the poor bastards who reside in a neighborhood zoned single-family residential next to a house that is operated like a motel. Have you been to the beach communities in northwest Florida, where it’s open warfare between the residents and the owners and renters of what are putatively single-family residences? There’s order and there’s chaos, the latter deemed the path to progress, provided, of course, that those who believe such nonsense don’t have to suffer the consequences.

8 Slocum April 26, 2015 at 12:37 pm

airbnb, uber, and the rest are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.

Well, if it makes you feel safer to stick with the chain hotels, fine — but we’ve rented many places (in the U.S., in Europe, in South America) over a number of years and have yet to have a bad experience. We tend to stay away from Airbnb because A) we’re not that low-budget, and B) we’re really not very interested in staying in somebody’s spare room. The places we rent tend to be vacation homes of one kind or another that the owners rent out when not using them — so neighbors expect renters to be around. No, we haven’t been to beachfront communities in northwest Florida (and somehow it’s not on the bucket list), but who in their right mind buys a beach house and thinks none of the other houses nearby will be rented to vacationers? Beach house rentals aren’t exactly a new phenomenon.

9 Urso April 27, 2015 at 2:48 pm

I cannot recommend northwest Florida highly enough.

10 Art Deco April 26, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Of course, airbnb and others openly violate zoning, licensing, sales tax, and other laws, which must warm a libertarian’s heart,

[citation needed]

11 Larry Siegel April 26, 2015 at 3:27 pm

I am writing this from a luxurious vacation home rented on VRBO, to which I’ll always be grateful. I am from the same social class as the neighbors and, as far as I know, I do not annoy them.

Chains are valuable when local knowledge is expensive. I still look for Preferred Hotels and Leading Hotels of the World when traveling in foreign countries, since they are not just marketing alliances; they certify hotels as being good ones.

Having stayed at some of the rat holes that Americans were avoiding in the 1950s and 1960s by staying at HoJos and Holiday Inn, I don’t blame people for using the chains. But now we have much easier access to information (and to competitive rates), so the chains aren’t as attractive.

The homeless do not generally come from the middle class.

12 Dave Anthony April 27, 2015 at 10:14 am

“openly violate zoning, licensing, sales tax, and other laws”

Laws which all serve to enforce the sameness. Lots of laws mean restricted market entry, less competition, and bigger companies that have the economies of scale to comply.

13 Floccina April 27, 2015 at 10:27 am

True and I think once a company is very successful in food of drink, its product becomes common and therefore despised. That light delicate bun they put put that ground beef on at McDonald’s would be fine dinning if all else you could get were a rustic bread and if ground beef did not exist and it were introduced I think people would think it great.

14 Ray Lopez April 26, 2015 at 9:19 am

Right you are Rayward. And there’s even a lobby in DC, about 20 years ago but I bet it still exists, that lobbies for homogenization in business (fighting stuff like states rights laws that make it harder for businesses to homogenize).

15 The Other Jim April 26, 2015 at 10:07 am

>went out of favor with the obsession with crime

Ah, I see. It wasn’t crime that was the problem. It was the obsession with crime. Got it.

16 Thor April 26, 2015 at 12:33 pm

“Hey! You can’t take my wallet! You will make me obsessed with crime!”

17 Art Deco April 26, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Yeah, the trebling of index crime rates over a twenty year period had flat nothing to do with people’s anxieties about crime. Jerome Miller, take it away.

18 Art Deco April 26, 2015 at 12:31 pm

There is no ‘descending middle class’; the share of the population consisting of the households of salaried employees and small business is not declining. It’s all nonsense to make an excuse for characters like Robert Reich to institute planning schemes, currency erosion, cross-subsidies, and the like.

That aside, the vagrant population is small (< 0.3% of the total) and it's only connection to the petty bourgeois is that it contains a few among their sons and daughters who are addled by schizophreniform disorders or got hooked on drugs.

19 Art Deco April 26, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Homogenization was a problem of secondary or tertiary significance. The problem was bad urban planning, wherein the peripheries of cities were designed not for people but for automobiles bearing organic cargo. Stores set back from the roads and surrounded with acres and acres of asphalt, single story stores with massive footprints, gargantuan seven lane roadways you could not cross anywhere, sparse or non-existent public transportation, and strict segregation of residential and commercial uses with the latter located at inconvenient distances from the former were all the order of the day. Suburbs built in the 1960s differ from suburbs built in the 1920s in a crucial respect: they’re ugly as sin in their commercial zones.

If they’d put the parking in back where it was not visible from the street, built sidewalks, built twice as many arteries and made them four lanes wide, sent bus and streetcar routes through, installed street lights, had two story buildings in stead of one-story buildings, &c. it would have mattered a great deal less that your commercial strip had a Howard Johnsons, a McDonalds, a Pier One Imports, &c.

20 liberalarts April 26, 2015 at 8:31 am

We stayed at a Howard Johnson’s Motel 2 or 3 years ago on I76 while visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters house. I was inspired by a Mad Men episode that featured HoJo’s. It was shopworn and the restaurant had long since closed. But the room was huge and it had an outdoor pool, rather than one of those chlorine-bomb indoor ones; We loved it. And it was ridiculously cheap, maybe $40 or $50 for a double room.

21 Razer Ray April 26, 2015 at 10:30 am

After some time no one will know what the 60s ballad “Oranges and Blues” (by Tiny Alice, an Ohio jug band that occasionally featured Spanky MacFarland of ‘Spanky and Our Gang’) means any more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m5EePdcN3s

The band: http://www.thefinalvinyl.com/tinyalic.htm
Their album: http://www.thefinalvinyl.blogspot.com/2013/01/tiny-alice-album-review.html

22 Ted Craig April 26, 2015 at 10:35 am

Or get the joke in “Blazing Saddles” about the orange roof on Howard Johnson’s outhouse.

23 Steve April 26, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Or that the store sign advertised “1 Flavor”.

24 Larry Siegel April 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm

They won’t know what “Tiny Alice” means (before the band took the name) either.

Are you from Cleveland? I was a fan of the band when I lived there, 40+ years ago.

25 education realist April 26, 2015 at 10:46 am

Yeah, like HoJo’s got killed by Airbnb, or as if Airbnb would ever come even close to making a small dent in motel business.

I happen to love driving around the country, and stay in motels a lot. There are dozens of really low end chains–as far as I know, motel 6 is the cheapest of them. Days Inn, America’s Best Value, Travel Lodge, Econolodge, Quality Inn, etc. It’s relatively easy to find places for under $70/night, even in expensive states. Holiday Inn, like Best Western, is relatively upscale and I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about as far as HIs being converted into homeless units.

Hojos broke up the restaurant and hotel business back in the 80s. As far as I know, the hotels are still operating.

They’re probably being run by Indians, though, since Indians own something like 60% of all budget hotels (https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/just-a-job/) . It’s apparently what Indians who aren’t engineers do–run motels and Subway franchises.

26 Jeff April 26, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Dunkin’ Donuts, too, in the Eastern US.

27 The Other Jim April 27, 2015 at 12:39 pm

And convenience stores, at least around Boston. The Simpsons got it right.

28 mkt April 28, 2015 at 1:59 am

In the Los Angeles area, the doughnut shops are run by Cambodians.

There are plenty of motels run by Indians, but they don’t seem to dominate the industry the way they do back east.

29 Fazal Majid April 27, 2015 at 1:21 am

Heh, my uncle used to own a Travelodge in Stockton, despite being an engineer.
More specifically among Indians, Gujaratis stand out for some reason.
http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/06/11/why-indian-americans-dominate-the-u-s-motel-industry/

30 Enrique Guerra-Pujol April 26, 2015 at 11:33 am

Good riddance!

31 Art Deco April 26, 2015 at 12:45 pm

I hadn’t remarked that Howard Johnson’s disappeared. I recall reading some years back that the country only had 45 Arthur Treacher’s left. I liked that chain. Carrol’s is long gone. I cannot recall the last time I saw a Burger King.

Business come and go. These sorts of stories are fodder for creatures like Barbara Ehrenreich who want to peddle their social nostrums using social fictions (“Gimbel’s is closing; Macy’s is going upscale; the middle class is dying” blah blah).

32 Careless April 27, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Given that there are something like 6,000 Burger Kings in the US, there’s either something wrong with your memory, or you live in a remote area

33 Milo Minderbinder April 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Used to stop at the HJ on 301 outside of Annapolis on the way to Virginia to see my grandparents. They had their own proprietary HoJo Cola (instead of Coke or Pepsi) and it was the worst.

34 Jack PQ April 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Creative destruction at work…

35 zbicyclist April 26, 2015 at 7:54 pm

So where did HJ so wrong? They had a highly recognizable name. They were in a growing industry (tourism).

The restaurants aren’t too hard to understand (coffee shops with restaurants have been in long-term decline as a type). But low end motels certainly haven’t gone away. Did they decide not to hire anyone named Patel?

36 dan1111 April 28, 2015 at 7:24 am

You can’t just follow a proven formula and have success. You have to consistently beat out competition–and there is lots of it in low-end motels and restaurants. Plus, a lot of business is driven by perceptions of the national brand. If people start associating the brand with crummy quality or perceive it as being in decline, it can be very hard to escape from that, even if you improve the product.

37 Dan Weber April 26, 2015 at 8:36 pm

According to Wikipedia, he’s still a hitting coach for the Seattle Mariners.

38 Turkey Vulture April 26, 2015 at 10:12 pm

I just watched a Futurama episode with a joke that referenced a Howard Johnson’s as if it were a restaurant, and I thought “isn’t that a hotel?” Now I understand.

39 Dave Anthony April 27, 2015 at 10:17 am

“Maybe that planet over there has a drive-thru. A Burger Jerk, or a Fishy Joe’s, or a Chizzler or something.”

40 Old economist April 27, 2015 at 12:25 am

I thank Howard Johnson restaurants for one of the excellent lessons that I received early in life. At the time I had a low paying junior job, a wife and infant baby. To relieve the cabin fever that comes with one’s first precious child, the three of us headed off for a short two day break out on Cape Cod. On the drive to our motel at Hyannis we stopped for lunch at a HJ. The food was slow, cold and terrible. I still recall the half-frozen sliced turkey in the sandwich. But we ate it anyway. That night in Hyannis we found a modestly priced Korean restaurant for dinner. The food was excellent, the service friendly, and it cost about the same as our lunch at HJ.

That night as I lay in bed I pondered why the experience should be so different between lunch and dinner, and I tried to work through the likely difference in the operating costs of the two restaurants. It just didn’t figure; the difference in the quality of the food and the service could not be explained by the cost differential. Neither restaurant was not especially busy on that day.

But then I began to think a lot more about the people who had served us in the two restaurants. My insight was to recall that the staff in the HJ who served us were not happy in their job. In contrast the staff at the Korean restaurant were happy at work. I believe that the productivity difference between the two restaurants was deeply related to their work cultures.

Of course I had heard all the old aphorisms that a happy worker is a good worker, but this was the first time that that essential truth had hit me at a personal level. I internalized that truth: to be productive you must be happy in your work. If you are not happy, you should go and find another job where you can be happy, as it will make you more productive. Life has subsequently taught me that when managing businesses (and I have had business divisions with thousands of staff) one of the easiest ways to assess productivity is to go find out how happy your people are at work.

So vale HJ, you provided a great lesson to me on the consequences of bad management.

41 RoyL April 27, 2015 at 12:35 pm

the thing about Howard Johnson’s is that by about 1970 they are spectacular uniformity. They were all spectacularily awful.

I remember one awful roadtrip to Lawrence, KS and back with my mother in 1978. My Dad, a much more experienced traveller had always avoided them like the plague. But I will never forget the taste of an uncooked hot dog weenie we had waited an hour and a half for.

I have no idea how they stayed in business so long.

42 albatross April 27, 2015 at 1:28 pm

At a guess, they were so recognizeable and so well-known among infrequent travelers that they could trade on their name recognition and their old reputation for several decades. That probably made it a lot easier to ignore problems (the food and service that were getting steadily worse, the competition that was getting steadily better) until it was too late to fix them.

43 Bill from maine April 27, 2015 at 5:07 pm

A few weeks ago the Bangor, Maine Howard Johnson location announced it was closing. I’m surprised that one lasted as long as it did. The last time I was in there a few years ago, they still had an old telephone booth (like you would see in an old T.V. episode) sitting in the rear of the dining area. It wasn’t working though it was kind of an indication what era they were still trying to do business in.

44 mkt April 28, 2015 at 1:57 am

I thought that Howard Johnson’s near Fenway Park in Boston would last forever; it was the last HoJo’s that I’d seen by quite a few years, and yet it seemed to keep going. But now I see that it closed several years ago, and it appears that it’s now The Verb Hotel, a name which suggests a place which is desperately trying to be a hip boutique.

45 dan1111 April 28, 2015 at 7:28 am

That’s probably better than desperately trying to be Howard Johnson’s.

46 Chris April 28, 2015 at 2:03 pm

It’s just the restaurants that are down to two locations. The hotels are still thriving. Some of the comments here suggest some people think the hotel chain is gone.

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