I’ve more or less been catching rumblings about Howard Johnsons restaurants for the past week, but it wasn’t until this weekend I finally had a chance to sit down and read what's been going on. As it turns out Howard Johnsons after all these years are down to one final restaurant in Lake George, NY. Although the motel chain has survived thanks to a buyout by Wyndham Hotels in 2006, the restaurants that were formerly part of the Howard Johnson experience weren’t as lucky and have eked out their survival although unsuccessfully ever since.
In many ways Howard Johnson’s was a mid-20th century equivalent to what Harvey Houses where in the late-19th to the early mid-20th centuries. Essentially a chain of restaurants and hotels aimed at serving travelers. Although one could partake in either a stay or a dining experience, many road weary travelers often chose to do both grabbing dinner and/or breakfast along with a stay. Of course Howard Johnson’s wasn’t the only chain doing this at the time, Best Western, Holiday Inn and even Route 66’s own Whiting Brothers offered such full services to travelers, nor was this anything new since cabin court hotels offered such services as far back as the 20’s. What really separated Howard Johnsons from the crowd though was that it was considered the gold standard for eating and lodging by the 1960’s and 70’s. The bright orange roofs of the motel/restaurant combo was a market branding ploy that hit home with families as meaning a quality place to stay and eat, and escape the ever more prevalent fast food establishments getting a foothold on the nation.
For many, Howard Johnson’s has been is often viewed as an East Coast franchise, but they did have a myriad of establishments across country including a number of them on Route 66, averaging at least one per state (minus Kansas) along the route. Many of them like the Flagstaff Route 66 location are still in business but now under different names, for instance this Flagstaff location is called the Crown Railroad Cafe, and is a family favorite of ours. Of course it’s good to know some of these restaurants are still around and in business, but the sad part is that the association with their heritage, orange roofs and all, is long gone and that the Howard Johnson brand name is no longer associated with family dining along the road.
The big question is what is the future of the last remaining Howard Johnson’s in Lake George, NY and with it the Howard Johnson’s name associated with restaurant hospitality services. Will it close as originally intended sometime in September of 2016, or will it live on as a reminder of a lost brand name? This means of course that the next question to be asked is, how did Howard Johnsons fail? With many establishments down Route 66 we can often point out the shift in traffic from Route 66 to the interstates, bypassing small towns and their dining and lodging establishments. Howard Johnson's however hit its stride in the era of the interstate, during the 60’s and 70’s, and didn’t just occupy Route 66 but dominated the East Coast and appeared mostly in larger towns everywhere else. Much as Denny’s and McDonalds are today so to was Howard Johnsons in its heyday set up strategically near interstate exits. So just what happened?
The fact of the matter was that Howard Johnsons was victim of its own success, as it set a gold standard many were quick to follow. Best Western Motels for instance has many such motel/restaurant combinations such as Gila Bend, Arizona’s Space Age Cafe and Motel and Mount Carmel, Utah’s Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge. As far as stand alone restaurants of similar faire, IHOP took a note out of Howard Johnsons book and used blue roofs on their restaurants to catch the eye of passing travelers, and Denny’s has had that famous yellow sign. On top of that the continued growth and variety of fast food restaurants in the 1980’s also dug into Howard Johnsons market of passing travelers. By the late 80’s though, with the Howard Johnson restaurants now divested from the Howard Johnson brand it became clear the restaurants as a chain were failing and franchise owners set adrift to sink or swim. Many choosing to save their businesses eventually cut ties with the Howard Johnson brand and set out to attach themselves to new franchises such as Denny’s or IHOP, or set out on their own independently like the aforementioned Crown Railroad Cafe in Flagstaff. As owners jumped ship, or just lost their restaurants entirely the number of Howard Johnson restaurants dwindled till we are where we currently stand with one last restaurant.
Unlike Whiting Brothers or the abandoned traveler town of Conway, TX which were victims of changing times and of the interstate, Howard Johnson restaurants were just a victim of a mismanagement of a brand name, and of the franchise in general. With that said it’s still sad to see the brand name pass, especially if you remember having eaten at Howard Johnsons while traveling as a kid. Not all is lost though since the motel chain, at least for now, lives on under Wyndham Hotels careful management.
By the way, if I peeked you interest with Howard Johnson's and their history be sure to check out http://www.hojoland.com/ its a great website full of memorabilia and historical info about HoJo's in their heyday.