The Last Howard Johnson's Just Closed For Good

The recent announcement that the last remaining Howard Johnson's restaurant has closed truly marks the end of an era. CNN Business shares that the Howard Johnson's in Lake George, New York was the last holdout, closing this year after 70 years in business. In its heyday the restaurant chain had hundreds of locations across the country, but in recent decades was forced to close most of them in the face of rising costs and fierce competition, especially from fast food businesses. 

Howard Deering Johnson began his restaurant empire in the 1920s with an ice cream shop in Quincy, Massachusetts, and despite the severe economic hardships of the Great Depression managed to open dozens of franchises across the state (via New England Today). The shops evolved into national restaurants that were especially popular with families traveling across the country. As a nod to their ice cream beginnings, Howard Johnson's restaurants all touted their famous 28 flavors of ice cream. Positioned along highways, interstates, and in tourist destinations, the Howard Johnson's peaked orange rooves served as beacons to weary vacationers. To further entice them Johnson added hotels to his hospitality business; while the restaurants are no more, the Howard Johnson hotels are still open as part of the Wyndham group. 

This famous French chef once flipped burgers at Howard Johnson's

Howard Johnson's restaurants were responsible for two food favorites in particular, according to New England Today. Massachusetts diners loved his fried clam rolls so much that his soft-shell clam supplier couldn't keep up — so Johnson figured out how to use larger and cheaper hen clams to make the strips so all his restaurants could serve them. Johnson also came up with the idea for a New England-style hotdog bun, with a flat bottom to let the bun stay upright when filled with clams.

HoJo's most famous former employee is none other than Chef Jacques Pépin, who spent years working for the chain after moving to New York in 1959, per a 2005 op-ed by the chef in The New York Times. As a line cook, Pépin made classic American food such as burgers, ice cream sundaes, and those famous clam rolls. NPR shares that Pépin's research into freezing his entrées made it possible for his food to be served in all Howard Johnson's locations, a pivotal development for the restaurant industry. In The New York Times, Pépin wrote, "For me, Howard Johnson's reliable, modestly priced food embodies the straightforwardness of the American spirit." He said that diners "looking for this kind of gentleness and simplicity will soon have to find it elsewhere. It won't be easy."