You don’t see them them around today, but in the 70s, Howard Johnson’s didn’t only provide overnight lodging, they were the largest restaurant chain in the United States. And millions of Long Islanders certainly remember sitting down to a quality meal at these memorable eateries back in the day.
Howard Johnson started out as a drug store owner in the 1920s. When he realized that his soda fountain made more money than the rest of the store, he decided to expand into the ice cream business, creating an astounding 28 flavors of the high quality frozen confection.
Soon after, he dumped the drug store and secured funding to open the first Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Massachusetts in 1929. The place became known not only for its ice cream, but also its hot dogs, baked beans, pot pies, and those glorious golden morsels of goodness known as fried clams.
World War II wasn’t so good for business, but in 1947, the company opened 200 new restaurants, and in less than ten years, that number doubled. Johnson wisely located them near highways and turnpikes. At the end of the 50s, Howard Johnson’s began expanding into the hotel business, placing one next to each of their most popular restaurants.
They were reasonably priced, well maintained, and arrived as America was embracing road trips like never before. The company also started offering their food in the frozen section of local grocery stores.
The 70s were peak years for Howard Johnson’s, now boasting over 1,000 restaurants and half as many motor lodges scattered across the nation’s landscape. Unfortunately, the country had also fallen hopelessly in love with fast food, and the restaurant chain simply couldn’t compete. Furthermore, as gas prices soared through the decade, less and less were taking to the road for their travels.
By the time the 70s ended, Howard Johnson’s would change hands numerous times, and all focus was on the hotels. When Marriot purchased the brand in 1985, they would close all but a handful of the restaurants that had fed weary travelers for decades.
Today, that number is down to a mere two locations, one in Bangor, Maine and the other in Lake Placid, New York, who both will still serve you up a piping hot plate of fried clams or a hot fudge sundae, just like you might have enjoyed with your family in the wonderful 70s.
If you have fond memories of eating at Howard Johnson’s back in the day, I hope you’ll share your recollections with us in our comments section below.