Howard Dearing Johnson*, Host of the Highway and The Orange Roof
By Stan Turkel
Howard Dearing Johnson (*1896-1972)
The Wyndham Hotel Group unveiled new plans for its Howard Johnson brand on September 10, 2013, including a new logo and conceptual exterior and interior designs. "Howard Johnson is a brand that for millions of travelers conjures fond memories of ice cream cones and family vacations," said Eric Danziger, Wyndham Hotel Group president and CEO. "It's a name that carries with it incredible equity. Reinvigoration is about growing the brand and restoring it to its rightful place within the industry by inspiring that same type of brand loyalty and affinity from a new generation of consumers."
My book "Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry", AuthorHouse 2009, contains the following interesting biographical information about Howard Johnson:
Ice cream, fried clams and hot dogs were the staples of his menu, and the orange roof and a weather vane the signature fixtures of his stores. But Howard Dearing Johnson probably was best known for being one of the first to introduce the restaurant industry to the world of franchising. Before franchising became the target of franchisee/franchisor disputes, Johnson used the business tool for what it was intended - a uniform system of operations and procedures that provided rapid expansion opportunities.... From a simple soda-fountain menu he built his reputation on manufacturing and selling high-quality ice cream. Johnson spent 15 years with his father's cigar company and eventually became one of the company's top salesman, reportedly earning $25,000 in his first year. Following his father's death, Johnson developed a new line of cigars that were not accepted in the marketplace because cigarettes were becoming more popular. The failed product created a sizable debt and a loss of pride for Johnson, who closed the business and went to work in a small drugstore in Wollaston, Massachusetts.
But shortly after Johnson began to work there, the proprietor died and the surviving son asked Johnson to take over the shop. In 1925, with a $2,000 loan, Johnson set out to pay off his $42,000 debt as the owner of the Howard D. Johnson Co. "patent medicines and toilet articles" shop. It sold patent and over-the-counter medications but Johnson quickly noticed that the marble soda fountain was the busiest part of the drugstore. It was said that his "secret formula" for ice cream was based on his mother's recipe with twice the normal butterfat and all natural ingredients. The super-premium ice cream was an immediate sensation and led Johnson to open a beachfront ice cream stand where he sold $60,000 worth of ice cream cones in the first year at 5¢ per cone. By 1928, he had created 28 flavors which became his trademark. He advertised it as "New England's Best Ice Cream" which reinforced his early guiding business principle, "Quality Sells."
Over the next few years, Johnson did for the hot dog what he had done for the ice cream cone. Instead of the normal greasy hot dog on a stale bun, Johnson clipped the frankfurters at both ends, notched them lengthwise and grilled them in pure creamery butter. He used only the highest quality meats, relish and lightly toasted, buttered fresh rolls. The results were amazing: the hot dog was elevated to a gourmet food status and became a public favorite all over the country.
Johnson's success was noticed by some local bankers who lent him the funds to open a restaurant in Quincy, Massachusetts in a ten-story Art Deco building. This first Howard Johnson restaurant featured chicken pot pie, baked beans, fried clams and, of course, those delicious hot dogs and the now-famous Howard Johnson ice cream all 28 flavors. In 1929, unexpected circumstances boosted the restaurant's popularity. Boston's Mayor Nichols banned an upcoming production of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude". Rather than dispute the mayor, the Theatre Guild moved the production to a theatre in Quincy which was close to a Howard Johnson restaurant. The five-hour play was presented in two parts with a dinner break in between. Hundreds of influential Bostonians ate in the Howard Johnson restaurant for the first time. Soon thereafter the stock market crashed and Johnson could not borrow any construction money. It was the monetary crisis that led Johnson to utilize a remarkable new idea called franchising. In 1935 Johnson convinced a business acquaintance to open a Howard Johnson restaurant in Orleans on Cape Cod. Johnson's organization designed the restaurant, set the service standards, created the menu and provided the ice cream and specialty food items. Franchising was not original with Johnson. A&W Root Beer, a California company, sold their first franchise to J. Willard Marriott in 1925 when he founded Hot Shoppes. By the end of 1936, there were 39 franchised Howard Johnson restaurants and 107 by the end of 1939. By the time World War II started in 1941, Howard Johnson directed a franchise network of more than 10,000 employees with 170 restaurants, many of which served one and a half million people a year. It was Johnson's foresight on quality and consistency, unique architectural design, curbside marketing, brand awareness and selection of high-traffic locations that expanded the company from a single ice-cream shop to a full-service national chain.
All were operated according to the "Howard Johnson Bible" a set of quality standards that left nothing to chance. Johnson himself wrote the manuals on how to operate, how to handle customers courteously and how waitresses should dress ("Howard Johnson Waitresses- Your Appearance from Head to Toe"). Johnson planned menus, recipes, operating methods, regimens for cleanliness and rules of courtesy. He decreed that customers must always find a friendly and welcome experience when they visited Howard Johnson's.
World War II brought gas rationing, food stamps and a sharp reduction in automobile travel. Johnson's restaurants were particularly hard hit. By 1944, only twelve remained in business. The Johnson company survived by preparing and serving commissary food to shipyards, the military and war factory workers. Johnson's survival was helped because his pre-war production of ice cream gave him large wartime quotas of sugar and cream. Those quotas were valuable since sugar and cream were strictly rationed.
The post-World War II period was characterized by a huge burst of economic activity stimulated by the GI Bill of Rights, pent-up demand for new housing, availability of cheap gasoline, new automobiles, creation of suburbia and improvement of state and interstate highways. By 1947, 200 new Howard Johnson restaurants were opened throughout the Southeast and Midwest. By 1954, aided by company-owned turnpike restaurants, there were 400 Howard Johnson's in 32 states. In the 1950's and 60's , the company bought out those franchisees who were not maintaining Howard Johnson standards.
It would be the roadside restaurant, however, that would propel Johnson to fame and fortune. Johnson seemed to have a keen eye for what Americans like, and was able to combine elements of various styles of roadside dining into one package that would be appealing to the greatest number of people.
As the company entered the 1960s, the company had a successful formula in place, and there were plenty of new interstate highways being built providing prime locations for Howard Johnson's Restaurants and Motor Lodges for years to come. In the mid 1960s, Howard Johnson's was at the top of its game. In 1965, the company's sales exceeded that of McDonalds, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.
By 1965, the Howard Johnson name was to be found on 770 restaurants and 265 motor hotels.....
Meanwhile, motel operators recognized the extraordinary benefit of locating next door to a Howard Johnson restaurant. They copied the architectural features of white clapboards and roof cupolas. The success of these motor inns ultimately caused the Johnson company to get into the lodging business. It was a natural extension of the Johnson reputation along the highways of America. The first Howard Johnson Motor Lodge was opened in 1954 in Savannah, Georgia. Meanwhile, new toll roads and highways opened in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Indiana. Many of them featured service plazas with Howard Johnson restaurants.
In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted the system of interstate highways which, in turn, triggered the greatest road and home building boom in the history of the United States. The federal legislation set very specific standards, one of which prohibited service plazas on the new highways. Not to be thwarted, the Johnson company acquired sites near the exit ramps with land enough to include a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge as well as a restaurant.....
Johnson continually standardized food service to a greater extent than had ever had been done before on large scale. Ellsworth M. Statler standardized the food services of Statler Hotels but Johnson produced commissary-prepared food, a method of reheating frozen food and of serving it which was standardized in all Howard Johnson restaurants. In about 1955, a hotel student at the Florida State University did a study which showed that the average ice cream cone being served in Florida Howard Johnson restaurants costs the company 88¢. The fact that they were being sold for 10¢ meant that the 10¢ cone was a loss leader. Cone prices were raised shortly thereafter and the dippers used were of a size which made it difficult to serve a larger-than-called-for portion. The number of seats in a Howard Johnson restaurant varied as new stores were built. But gradually there evolved a standard building with standard seating and equipment. The design and operation became more and more standardized so that each Howard Johnson store might have rolled off an assembly line. Every year between 1961 and 1979 annual sales increased. During that period, the Johnson family sold nearly two million shares of stock worth an estimated $125 million.
The Howard Johnson Motor Lodges were a sharp improvement in quality over the many poorly maintained motels on the highways. They featured modern facilities with large guestrooms, fresh linens, a bathtub and shower, air conditioning and television. Each motor lodge had an orange roof and an adjoining Howard Johnson restaurant. Although Howard Johnson kept expanding to more than 1000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges in 42 states and Canada by 1975, the original Johnson concept was coming to an end. Over 85% of the company's revenues depended on automobile travel. The oil embargo and gasoline shortage of 1974 reduced the number of automobiles on the road drastically....
The company assumed that the traditional Howard Johnson's restaurants would continue to have exclusive control of the highways. But McDonald's and others began to win contracts and increase roadside locations. Even the Marriott Corporation, whose Hot Shoppes competed with Howard Johnson's, entered the fast food segment with its Roy Rogers chain.
As more of the Interstate Highways system neared completion and the nation became saturated with orange roofs, the company looked to other restaurant concepts for continued growth, tacitly admitting that maybe the Howard Johnson's restaurant was not all things to all people. Red Coach Grill, an upscale steakhouse similar to the Steak and Ale chain, was often located next to a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge to tap business travelers and their expense accounts, but ultimately the concept did little for the company. More successful was the Ground Round, a casual restaurant chain that survives today under separate ownership.
At the same time, new competition delivered a one-two punch that hit the existing restaurant and lodging business, and it nearly was a knockout blow. America had become a nation in a hurry, and fast food restaurants met the new demand for a good, quick meal at a good, low price. Suddenly everyone was singing. "You Deserve a Break Today" and "Have It Your Way at Burger King." Howard Johnson seemed like yesterday's news. Changing times overtook the hospitality business as well. Somehow the spanking new Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn and Marriott hotels that were springing up everywhere made those once-modern Howard Johnson's Motor Lodges look not so modern anymore....
On April 28, 2005, in the New York Times, the famous chef Jacques Pepin wrote the following poignant recollection:
"When word spread that the last Howard Johnson's restaurant in New York City in Times Square would probably close, there was something of an uproar. Though plans are uncertain, brokers say it is likely that a big retail chain will replace it. The idea that this icon of American dining will disappear from the city landscape made me particularly sad, since it was at Howard Johnson's that I completed my most valuable apprenticeship."
Pepin reports that he had only been in America eight months when he started working at Howard Johnson's. He moved there from Le Pavillon, the temple of French haute cuisine, where he had been working since his arrival in the United States in 1939. Howard Johnson, who often ate at Le Pavillon, hired him and his fellow chef, Pierre Franey.
"It was Mr. Johnson's contention that I should learn about the Howard Johnson Company from the ground up. I worked a few months as a line cook at one of the largest and busiest Howard Johnson's restaurants at the time, on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. I flipped burgers, cooked hot dogs and learned about the specialties of the house, among them tender fried clams made from the tongues of enormous sea clams whose bodies were used as the base for the restaurants' famous clam chowder. Other specialties I became familiar with included macaroni and cheese, hash browns, ice cream sundaes, banana splits, and certainly, apple pies."
Pepin worked for Howard Johnson for more than nine years mostly in the Queens Village commissary where he and Franey learned how to mass produce Howard Johnson specialties such as beef stew, scallops in mushroom sauce, beef burgundy, clam croquettes, etc. Pepin recalled making fresh stock in large batches requiring 3000 pounds of veal bones, carving 1000 turkeys and making 10 tons of frankfurters. Apparently, Howard Johnson would visit the test kitchen to ask questions and make suggestions.
Pepin recalled, "Albert Kamin, the famous Swiss pastry chef, soon joined us, working to set up a pastry department that produced 10 tons of Danish pastries a day for the hundreds of restaurants in the chain and thousands and thousands of apple, cherry, blueberry and pumpkin pies each day. This was my first exposure to mass production. I developed products for the Red Coach Grill, which was the Cadillac of the Howard Johnson chain, as well as the Ground Round, and the grocery division of the company, which supplied supermarkets, schools and other institutions."
©2013 Stanley Turkel, [email protected]