Howard Johnson’s: The End of an Era — Almost
T he last time I was at a Howard Johnson’s was in White River Junction — a small, seemingly sleepy unincorporated village in Vermont of fewer than 2,500 residents located west of the Connecticut River where Interstates 89 and 91 cross — years ago on a business trip. The choice of both dining establishment and lodging was not mine; but rather that of a salesman with whom I was traveling.
I recall the food being passable but not memorable; and the accommodations were fine but rustic and clearly dated in every aspect. Still, staying and dining at a Howard Johnson’s on that drizzly gray day somehow just seemed right for that moment. I remember feeling rather calm and mellow before checking out to visit a customer site…
Howard Johnson’s: The End of an Era — Almost
…but that building with the instantly recognizable trademark orange roof was eventually renovated after the restaurant and hotel went out of business and was replaced by a piano store.
The fate of the location of White River Junction was no anomaly. Rather, it was part of an epidemic which eroded the once mighty Howard Johnson’s restaurant empire — the largest chain of restaurants in the 1960s and 1970s with greater than 1,000 locations — towards its demise; and the hemorrhaging of what used to be iconically linked with travel by car steadily continued despite any insufficient financial tourniquets which were applied to it.
“The closing of one of the last two Howard Johnson restaurants in a couple of weeks will mark the end of its fried clam strips, ice cream and other menu staples that nourished baby boomers and leave the once-proud restaurant chain teetering on the brink of extinction”, according to this article written by David Sharp for The Washington Post. “The slice of roadside Americana will no longer be served up in Bangor after Sept. 6.”
I had no right to feel that tinge of melancholy which enveloped me at that moment as I read the article. After all, I was not a customer of Howard Johnson’s. I never excitedly thought of eating at one…
…and apparently, my parents — may they both rest in peace — felt similarly. My mother liked to stop at a Stuckey’s during a road trip to get one of those vaunted pecan rolls which she was unable to purchase in New York; and my father preferred to stop for the night at a roadside Holiday Inn, as they were cheap, clean and reasonably comfortable.
Howard Johnson’s was just not a part of my history — unless you count that one was located across the street from where I worked in Times Square, which was eventually razed sometime in 2005.
“The Howard Johnson’s was built in 1955 and is the oldest, continually operated business facing directly on Times Square”, according to this article written by Robert Simonson for Playbill, as the theater district is located nearby. “Its squat dimensions once fit in nicely with the low-scale, slightly down-at-heel architecture that for a long time characterized the area. But the real estate revival of the late 1990s saw it dwarfed by glass towers and glossy stores like Toys ‘R’ Us and the Virgin Megastore. Increasingly, the venerable old institution looked like an anachronism.”
I never did walk into that Howard Johnson’s restaurant — nor do I have any regrets.
The Restaurant Chain and the Lodging Chain: Not Necessarily the Same
Note that the name of the restaurant generally has an apostrophe; whereas the lodging chain currently does not.
Howard Johnson — the lodging company — had changed brands through the years since it was acquired for greater than $630 million in 1979.
Most notably — in 1986 — Howard Johnson’s restaurants were franchised separately from the lodging brand by none other than Marriott International, Incorporated, which purchased the brand in 1985. Many of the Howard Johnson’s restaurants — other than the franchised ones — were either demolished or converted to other restaurant brands simply because they were viewed as real estate and not necessarily dining establishments, as Marriott International, Incorporated already owned other restaurant concerns.
The food and beverage rights to the restaurant are purportedly currently owned by Wyndham Worldwide — the same company of which the Howard Johnson lodging chain is currently but one of several of its brands — but many years of neglect, no refreshing of the menu options, aging buildings, lack of marketing, and increasing options from robust competitors are only some of the factors which contributed to the demise of the restaurant empire. The brand was too far gone to be saved…
…except at the last location in Lake George, New York, where the restaurant “appears to be on solid ground” and is open year round. “We’re doing great,” John LaRock — the owner of that last location — said in the aforementioned article in The Washington Post. “We’re going to do some renovations this winter. Spruce it up, keep it going.”
For sentimentalists, it is always sad when a brand once well known for years succumbs to the ever-changing times — but there are also those who staunchly believe that change is good for the future.
In the case of the restaurant empire of Howard Johnson’s, the culprit may not have necessary been a change in the tastes of consumers — there are still people who will swear by those fried clam strips, ice cream and certain other foods; although most of them can be found with the offerings of competitors — but rather, it was apparently more the result of gross inattention. If I want fried clam strips, I would go to a place by the sea — such as Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, where my mother enjoyed fried clams.
As for the Howard Johnson lodging chain, it is apparently the lower middle-range conversion brand of a collection of mostly mediocre brands which are a part of the Wyndham portfolio of hotel and resort properties — and you can supposedly enjoy select flavors of its classic ice cream — but I have no intention of being a guest at one of these hotel properties anytime soon simply because I have no interest and because there are better lodging options for me, in my opinion.
I might have felt some sadness about the demise of the Howard Johnson’s restaurants; but if I were offered the opportunity to dine at one, I would most likely decline anyway as — in my opinion — there are better dining options.
Source of photograph: Christopher Ziemnowicz, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.