Hi folks! The following article by Bob Greene was sent to me by one of our readers, Robert Steward of Jeromesville. He opened up my memory banks regarding this famous restaurant. I loved their coleslaw. So many of these wonderful places have passed on into the memories of all. They are ghosts of America’s past, hiding in plain sight on September afternoons along pre-interstate-era highways and small-town main drags.
"I’ve never had anyone come in here and mention the connection," said Jason Hill, general manager of SuperNatural Brewing and Spirits in Livonia, Mich. "But that’s probably because we get a younger crowd."
"It comes up with our older customers," said Debbie Baker, a sales executive at MountainOne Insurance in Williamstown, Mass. "They’ll look at the outside of our building, and that will start a conversation."
"There’s still a faded logo on the floor tile here," said Beth Hovan, a bartender at the Double Wide Grill in Irwin, Pa. "Most people don’t know what it is."
Some of the buildings still have the old orange roofs. But even where the roofs have been painted over with drabber colors, there is a look to the exteriors—vaguely colonial, with cupolas that once hoisted metal weather vanes bearing the image of Simple Simon and the Pieman—that is the tipoff.
These were Howard Johnson’s restaurants. In the middle of the 20th century they were arguably the most popular places to eat in the United States: ubiquitous on the national landscape, as recognizable as the Washington Monument, as familiar and welcoming as a grandma’s hug.
"Howard Johnson was the Henry Ford of the hospitality industry," said Richard Kummerlowe, 53, of Gonzales, La. Mr. Kummerlowe is one of a small coterie of amiable amateur gumshoes who track down the buildings the restaurants once inhabited. Why such devotion to Howard Johnson’s? "It’s American history," he said. "Wherever you went, you knew exactly what you were going to get." Even ardent HoJo’s aficionados will admit that what you were going to get was food that was good enough, if not great. Most items were prepared in a central commissary and shipped to more than 1,000 restaurants, at Howard Johnson’s peak. Consistency was king, right down to the waitresses’ turquoise-and orange uniforms.
Today the old buildings house banks, dental clinics, veterinary hospitals, jewelry stores—anything but HoJo’s. The big mirrors that bore the names of the restaurants’ 28 ice-cream flavors have been torn out. The unmistakable fragrance of all-you can-eat fried-clam night has long since drifted away. So what doomed HoJo’s? Ray Kroc, mainly. The McDonald’s impresario understood that Americans were in a perpetual hurry. Kroc’s sales pitch — burgers delivered faster and cheaper than what Howard Johnson’s table service and broad menu could provide — made HoJo’s suddenly feel stodgy and helped drive it off the map. Now only a hotel brand bearing the name remains; the sole restaurant still carrying a Howard Johnson’s sign is in Lake George, N.Y., and the land on which it stands was put up for sale last year.
HoJo’s archaeologists say that when founder Howard Deering Johnson died in 1972, his son, Howard B. Johnson, could not maintain the magic (he presided over the introduction of the medicinal-tasting HoJo Cola, which was only slightly more palatable than a mouthful of liquid soap). By contrast the elder Johnson had known how to make any meal item inviting, said Glenn Wells, 62, of Halfmoon, N.Y.: "Even the lowly hot dog, elevated to a new standard as a ‘grilled butter Frankfort’ served on a toasted square New England-style bun."
The restaurants’ secret, Mr. Wells said, had been to vie mightily to be "all things to all people" in a country that still embraced such a concept. That world isn’t coming back, and neither are Howard Johnson’s restaurants, as even the die-hards concede. So when they’re scouring the countryside for the shells of the former restaurants, what, really, are they seeking?
"Something that can take your thoughts out of the turbulence of today," said Walter Mann, 53, of North Haven, Conn. He still gets a pleasant jolt when, out of nowhere, he spots one of those old orange roofs.
"They were happy places," he said. "Wherever in the country you and your parents might be driving, they were waiting for you. When you were a child and you went inside, you felt safe and calm, and even though you’d never been in that particular one before, you somehow felt like you were home." Mr. Greene’s books include "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights."
Birthdays being celebrated this week include: Oct. 23 – Kacie Hunter and Bob "Buzz" Henley; Oct. 24 – Mindy Miller, Sharon Ray, Francis Bird and Gary McClure; Oct. 25 – Katrina Truax, Scot Dessenberg, Dean Ott and Patty Mowery; Oct. 26 – Brenda Spier and Tom Truax; Oct. 27 – Cody Miller and Shane McCaskey; Oct. 29 – Tim Ray, Tom Beck, Gene Lifer and Marla Knight.
Many happy returns of the day to each of you!
News Flash! "Dear humans, in case you forgot, I used to be your Internet. Sincerely, The Library."
Only two wedding anniversaries to celebrate this week: Oct. 24 – Oris and Ruth Nickles; Oct. 27 – Bruce and Mary Davis.
Finally - A best friend is like a four- leaf clover, hard to find, lucky to have.