How fast-food killed off the restaurant chain that made highway food popular

Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from Yale historian Paul Freedman’s new book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.”

The closing of the Bangor, Maine, Howard Johnson leaves only one survivor of an otherwise extinct restaurant brand that truly deserves the overworked term “iconic.” Although there are still plenty of Howard Johnson Motor Lodges, the actual restaurant, which once fed more people than any other American institution except the U.S. Army, is now down to a single representative in Lake George, New York.

People of a certain age fondly associate HoJo’s with family car trips around the time of the Eisenhower or maybe the Johnson administration. Howard Deering Johnson, the founder, experimented with a rich, fat and creamy ice cream that created a local sensation in the Boston area during the 1920s. He subsequently opened what would become a coast-to-coast chain of roadside restaurants whose 28 ice cream flavors form part of so many childhood memories. In its last years, that Bangor Howard Johnson offered only vanilla ice cream, its freezers mostly broken. And it has been years since the franchises could produce cherished items such as fried clam strips, date-nut bread or buttered “frankforts” (that is, frankfurters) served in square toasted buns.

Howard Johnson pioneered several key concepts in the American way of dining out: roadside locations, a family-friendly ambience, franchising, predictability and serving comfort food long before that term was invented. As far back as the 1930s the company had a clear mission statement:

To serve the finest food on the American highways at reasonable prices to a large volume of family and medium-income Americans, and to serve it in an attractive atmosphere.

This looks like a bland formula that might belong to McDonald’s, and certainly modern fast food would not have been possible without Howard Johnson to lead the way. But Howard Johnson was built up from the 1930s to 1960s according to a different culinary and technological model. Much of the food was sent out frozen from regional commissaries, but unlike Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and their brethren today, there were real kitchens and cooks. The menu was large and did not depend on just one concept like fried chicken, burgers or tacos. According to a 1957 company report, the commissaries handled 433 different items.

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These were sit-down restaurants with waitresses (the dining room staff was almost always female). Drive-thru had not been invented. Howard Johnson assumed you wanted to get out of the car after traveling with restless kids. It offered children diversions such as oversize lollipops or cookies with the triangle-shaped ice cream perched on a cone, but its middle-class informality was sedate compared to today. In its later decades the restaurant sold some of its classics to prepare at home: baked beans, Welsh rarebit, frozen shrimp and, of course, fried clams. But it didn’t encourage takeout orders.

Howard Deering Johnson wasn’t the first person to try to profit from Americans’ infatuation with the automobile in the 1920s. If the post-war World War II materialist manifestation of the “American Dream” was to own a house, a car was the epitome of an earlier dream. Highway venues in the Roaring Twenties were rough, all-night diners for truckers and commercial salesmen or shabby places offering mediocre food to people who were assumed to never be coming back. With regard to roadside food, the writer Bernard de Voto remarked after a 1940 cross-country trip, that Americans were a vigorous people, as proven by “the fact that by the hundreds of thousands they eat this garbage and survive.”

Profiting from this misery, Howard Johnson developed restaurants that were clean, reliable, carefully thought-out and relatively upscale. They had paved parking areas and landscaping while most restaurant owners didn’t bother. Instead of billboards, which Howard Deering Johnson considered trashy, a distinctive look advertised the chain: bright, artificially glowing blue and orange colors combined with white pseudo-colonial architecture to attract drivers. The restaurants were situated to be easily seen in advance, so drivers could pull into that paved parking lot.

Above all, Howard Johnson was predictable. There were 28 ice cream flavors, the service was friendly, but not obsequious, and the food was the same coast to coast. The founder was fanatical about standardization, and the company’s thick manuals told managers how many glasses of water or small cups of tartar sauce to set out in advance and gave detailed instructions about dishwashing. In our age of artisanal ingredients and preparations in which “heirloom” tomatoes misshapen shape is praised and everything is supposed to be prepared and even grown on the premises, it may be difficult to imagine how reassuring automation, regimentation and standardization were. Food that was safe, clean and served in a hygienic and cheerful environment was not taken for granted. Advertising depicted food as ideally “untouched by human hands” or at least processed by white-coated figures who looked as if they worked in a laboratory.

The genius of Howard Johnson was to present homelike “comfort” food in a gleamingly modern ambience. The food was hearty, even heavy by today’s standards, but not spicy or “ethnic”; the curried shrimp couldn’t have had more than a trace of curry powder. The earlier colonial look and the succeeding post-war glass and hipped roof design were up to date in — what was for their time — a reassuring and cheerful way.

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The bland food was more innovative than it might at first seem judging from menus featuring chicken pot pie, Western omelets or cube-steak platters. No one outside of coastal New England had ever eaten fried clams before Howard Johnson’s introduced them in the late-1930s. The fact that these clams became a fondly remembered signature dish by people from Nebraska or Tennessee was accomplished by careful research to find the right kind of clam that could be made into crispy strips and by skillful marketing to introduce an alien and by no means intuitively appealing food item.

Despite the Great Depression, Howard Johnson’s prospered in the 1930s as Americans lucky enough to have been able to keep their cars continued to do a surprising amount of leisure driving. The war almost killed the chain, but it bounced back rapidly once fuel and food rationing were lifted. The chain weathered 1960s changes, such as the integration of Southern restaurants through civil rights agitation and legislation (Howard Johnson’s was timid and hardly exemplary in this campaign), the 1970s fuel embargoes and even the initial advent of fast food. In the middle of 1979, when McDonald’s was already gigantic, there were 1,040 Howard Johnson’s restaurants, and they were quite profitable.

Like a murderously rebellious child, the fast-food industry did eventually kill the restaurant chain that had thought up so many of its innovations. With a limited menu, bright but inexpensive interiors, unskilled labor and the food prepared by machines, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the like undercut Howard Johnson in price, and meanwhile, the food at HoJo’s had deteriorated through cost-cutting and lack of investment. A common witticism had it that “Howard Johnson has 28 flavors of ice cream and just one flavor of food.”

The restaurant was sold in 1979 to a British company and then in 1985 to Marriott. The dismantling of the brand began when Marriott sold off the franchises and then closed its wholly owned branches so that by the mid-1990s, there were only 100 Howard Johnson restaurants (as opposed to the motor lodges), all owned by franchisees who in theory had their own confederation, but were essentially on their own. Over the past 20 years, these orphans either joined another chain, sold out to a developer for some other use or just shut up shop. No longer were Howard Johnson’s restaurants familiar features of the culinary landscape; they had become curious relics. The owners of the last one in Lake George say business is good and they have no intention of abandoning it. May they prosper!