The tech world is littered with high-flying brands that reach dizzying heights, only to crash and burn: BlackBerry, MySpace, some would even say Microsoft. All had good mojo working, and then somehow they misstepped and saw their prospects plummet. And there will always be people who delight in their misfortune, and claim they saw it coming.
But one of America’s most iconic brands hit the skids, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. And I don’t know anyone who feels schadenfreude for the downward trajectory of this onetime favorite. I’m talking about Howard Johnson’s, whose ubiquitous orange and white rooftops crisscrossed America. At one time, Howard Johnson’s operated more restaurants than anyone. It ventured into hotels and “motor lodges” with great success, as well.
The restaurants were known for their ice cream—“28 Flavors”—that came in sundaes, cones and banana splits, as well as their all-you-can-eat fried chicken and fried clams specials. It was their fried clams that drew me into these restaurants. The décor was vaguely psychedelic and firmly psychotic.
But HoJo karma hit a snag: In 1971, two irate guests who were thrown out of a downtown New Orleans location set fire to the premises, killing six. Eighteen months later, Black Panther Mark Essex got on a location’s roof—also in New Orleans—and shot and killed seven people, while injuring more. As if this press wasn’t bad enough, the chain had to contend with a misguided management directive to lower the food quality while cutting back on employees. The brand never recovered. When the Howard Johnson estate sold the chain, Marriott Hotels took over and shuttered most of the restaurants.
I have never gotten over this fall from grace. I have very fond memories of my dad taking me to a HoJo’s counter for an ice cream soda. In my high school days, my friends and I would cram into the molded plastic banquettes, every server’s nightmare. And when a girl sent me an anonymous note, inviting me out on a HoJo date—my first—I agonized for hours on what to wear and what to order.
Sure, the place was bizarrely colored and maintained a steady stream of creepy Muzak; sure, the waitresses were of another era, with their starched apron dress, server’s hat and imitation floral arrangement pinned to their bosom. But for me and millions of other baby boomer teenagers, Howard Johnson’s was the place where we learned about eating out and learned about dating. Can you blame us for lamenting this loss?