On a 2012 episode of Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and wife Megan (Jessica Paré) are dispatched to Plattsburgh, New York, to get a better sense of the atmosphere found in the restaurants of potential client Howard Johnson’s.
For many viewers, the scene was probably unfamiliar—a bright orange-roofed eatery famous for fried clams and an incredible 28 flavors of ice cream. But for those who lived through Howard Johnson’s heyday, it was almost as ubiquitous a sight as rest stops or gas stations. As America’s arterial highways expanded, so did “HoJo’s,” which served classic comfort food and offered affordable hotel accommodations. For families hitting the road for summer trips, it was a home away from home—a breakfast counter, casual dining, and ice cream detour in one.
Raising the Roof
Unlike the fictitious Betty Crocker, the food empire of Howard Johnson’s was named after a real Howard Johnson. Born in 1897, Johnson rolled and sold cigars for his father’s business. When the senior Johnson passed in 1921, Johnson inherited both his business and his accompanying debts.
To turn things around, Johnson decided to seek opportunities outside of tobacco. In 1925, the Boston entrepreneur opened his first eatery, which was devoted to selling newspapers and ice cream, in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Serving ice cream was hardly a novel idea, but Johnson had a strategy. After acquiring a recipe from a local German pushcart ice cream vendor, Johnson doubled the amount of butterfat in his flavors. The highly decadent treat went down smoothly thanks to freezers that kept the consistency smooth. Ice cream stands followed, both on beaches and on roadsides. (Despite the variety of flavors, vanilla was his perennial bestseller.)
But ice cream was not his sole interest. By 1929, Johnson had plunged fully into the restaurant business.
This first location, also in Quincy, benefited from a controversy. Nearby, a Eugene O’Neill play about abortion, Strange Interlude, was playing. It drew the elite of Boston and led to spillover business for Johnson, who served theatergoers flocking to the scandalous performance plenty of his food and ice cream.
At the time Johnson was looking to expand to other restaurant locations, the franchise concept was uncommon. The McDonald brothers wouldn’t meet Ray Kroc—the man who would commandeer their McDonald’s restaurant and turn it into a worldwide brand—for decades. But Johnson was more nimble than the restaurant practices of the era. When he couldn’t afford to open a second location himself, he allowed a relative named Reginald Sprague to do it instead.
The idea caught on. By 1940, one Howard Johnson’s had turned into 130 on the East Coast alone. The company had even secured a …….