Last but not least

“DOES HoJo still serve fried clams?” asked a Howard Johnson’s patron, using the nickname for the restaurant chain. He recently ate there for the first time in nearly 40 years. Back then, “HoJo” could be found on almost every highway and byway and felt as ubiquitous as McDonald’s or Starbucks are today. At its height in the 1970s, Howard Johnson’s had more than 1,000 restaurants and was the biggest food chain in America. Only the army fed more people. Now, only one is left. The last one standing is in Lake George, a summer tourist spot in New York’s Adirondacks.

Howard Deering Johnson, the chain’s founder, started his food empire in 1925 with an ice-cream shop outside Boston. He was an early pioneer of franchising. At one point in the 1960s, a new restaurant opened every nine days. Growth coincided with the rise of the car, the highway system, the middle class and family holidays. Each franchise had to adhere to the “Howard Johnson’s Bible”, which dictated everything from decor to the amount of tartare sauce; and each had to use food prepared by central commissaries, which was delivered to the restaurants for final cooking. The large menu included 28 ice-cream flavours, tender sweet Ipswich fried clams and butter-grilled “frankforts”.

Mr Johnson took food quality seriously, spending 48% of his gross revenue on food (Chipotle, a present-day food chain, which prides itself on using fresh products, spends only 35%). In 1960 he hired chefs from Le Pavillon, then the finest restaurant in New York City. One, Jacques Pépin, turned down an offer to be President Kennedy’s White House chef. Food quality was part of the chain’s appeal, as were affordability and reliability. Before Howard Johnson’s, travellers found only greasy spoons and truck stops which were not family-friendly. A Howard Johnson’s meal was affordable glamour for the growing middle-class. The waitresses wore uniforms designed by Dior.

But its reputation slipped in the 1970s. Food quality diminished. The brand became synonymous with bland, says Paul Freedman, author of “Ten Restaurants that Changed America”. People began to joke that Howard Johnson’s ice-cream came in 28 flavours and its food in one. It had difficulty competing with fast-food chains, which imitated its business model while stripping it down (no real kitchens or wait staff).

In 1979 the Johnsons sold the company. It changed hands several times. The motel-lodge arm of the company still exists, now owned by Wyndham Hotels. The restaurant franchises formed their own network for a spell, but one by one they closed.

John LaRock leases and runs the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant. It still has its orange-tiled roof, and the weather vane with the old Simple Simon and pieman logo. Mr LaRock worked in the same kitchen in the 1970s and, though the property is for sale, he has no intention of closing. He hopes to buy it, and add a gift shop to sell HoJo paraphernalia: “People love that stuff.”