Whatever Happened To Howard Johnson's Restaurants?

Do you remember HoJo's? If you are under the age of ... no longer wanting to mention your age, then you're probably thinking "Ho who?" If you're sighing in nostalgia over those 28 flavors, though, you're probably wondering how long it's been since you've seen one of Howard Johnson's distinctive orange roofs. Well, unless you've been through Lake George, New York in the past few years, chances are, it's been a while. According to Eater, the Howard Johnson's restaurant in Lake George is "the Last Howard Johnson's in the universe," although reports are mixed as to whether it is actually still in business or not.

A 2012 Albany Times Union article reports that the restaurant closed down the previous year and the property was to be sold or perhaps made into a HoJo's museum – they also name-dropped Rachael Ray, who evidently had her first food-industry job under that same orange roof. Well, the sale did not go through, since a former employee chose to lease the restaurant space and reopen it, still under the Howard Johnson's brand, in 2015. Yelp confusingly cites reports that the Lake George restaurant is again permanently closed, but the most recent review dates from June 2021 and the restaurant's own website reports that they are open for business as usual.

HoJo's was huge in mid-century America

According to Eater, the Howard Johnson's story started in 1925 with a man named – yes! Howard Johnson. He made the momentous decision to double the amount of butterfat in the ice cream sold at his Quincy, Massachusetts soda fountain. Within a few years, he had 28 flavors of the stuff and was operating a small chain of ice cream stands, so he parlayed his success into a full-service restaurant opening in 1929. By the time WWII broke out, there were hundreds of HoJos dotted across the New England landscape, with most of these being owned by franchisees.

In 1948, the year that Howard Johnson's sold their 5 billionth cone (and 7 years before McDonald's could even boast that they'd sold "dozens and dozens" of hamburgers), the chain introduced their new modernist buildings built in an angular style that was cutting-edge back then, although charmingly retro today. (The future looked a lot cuter back in the past.) By the 1950s, HoJo's iconic orange roofs were popping up all along the interstate highway system along with the hotels that  America Comes Alive! reveals were originally conceived as add-ons to the restaurants. Business boomed throughout the 60s but started to sputter in the 70s. Throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s the restaurant chain, now divorced from the Marriott-owned hotels (which still exist), fizzled out to the point where the Lake George Howard Johnson's restaurant is the last of its kind.

What was on the menu at Howard Johnson's?

No visit to HoJo's was complete without sampling at least one of the 28 flavors – and according to America Comes Alive!, if you could prove you'd tried all 28, your 29th cone would be free. The flavors were: Black Raspberry, Burgundy Cherry, Butter Pecan, Buttercrunch, Butterscotch, Caramel Fudge, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Coconut, Coffee, Frozen Pudding, Fruit Salad, Fudge Ripple, Lemon Stick, Macaroon, Maple Walnut, Mocha Chip, Orange-Pineapple, Peach, Peanut Brittle, Pecan Brittle, Peppermint Stick, Pineapple, Pistachio, Strawberry, Strawberry Ripple, and Vanilla. Sadly, Eater reports that Howard Johnson's hasn't produced ice cream since the last millennium, so now the Lake George restaurant sources their ice cream from Gifford's instead.

As to those other long-lost menu items, the New York Public Library has a vintage Howard Johnson's menu in their archives. A quick perusal has us nostalgic for those Ipswich clam strips, the "hamburg steak," and of course the grilled "frankforts" in tasty toasted rolls. The real tear-jerker, at least for the too-old-to-appreciate-avocado-toast set, is the nursery rhymed themed children's menu (via Flickr) with meals such as the Miss Muffet Lunch (no curds or whey, just veggies and bacon), the Jack Horner Lunch (PBJ with Jell-O salad), and the Simple Simon Special (roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes). Each one of these meals came with a beverage as well as your choice of ice cream, sherbet, or gelatin, though we doubt too many kids ever picked the last one.

Mad Men revived some interest in Howard Johnson's

The nearly-defunct chain received a boost from the show that single-handedly made everything mid-century cool again. Mad Men, the hit series set in the early 60s, was responsible for renewed interest in retro cocktails like the old fashioned and the mai tai as well as in the fashion and music of the Rat Pack era and JFK's brief reign in Camelot. One episode even brought Howard Johnson's back into the limelight, revolving around a Draper family trip to the HoJo's in Plattsburgh, New York. 

According to Retrologist, the episode took place in 1966, just a year after the Plattsburgh restaurant opened. As to why the Drapers drove all the way upstate when they would have passed any number of HoJo's en route, this may be because this location was one of the chain's new "Concept '65" restaurants. Draper seemed to approve of the design, calling it a "delightful destination" (via Eater). Meghan disagreed, saying "It's not a destination, it's on the way to someplace." 

Well, there's no denying that the Lake George Howard Johnson's (although sadly not the long-defunct Plattsburgh one) is a destination now. Any boomers or Gen Xers planning a pilgrimage to this last remnant of their childhood will need to be aware, however, that as per Atlas Obscura's info, the world's last HoJo's is closed during the winter.