Ho Jo's No Go
I heard it on my car radio this evening while I was driving. I don't even know what they were saying about it--I just caught some fleeting mention of the name, and something about it being the last one in Maine. The last what in Maine? The last Howard Johnson's restaurant.
How the mighty have fallen. One with Nineveh and Tyre, and all that. My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair. Those orange roofs that had dotted the highways of my youth, gone? There were so many once, like the passenger pigeons that had blackened the nineteenth-century skies; how could they be no more?
Well, it turns out they're not all gone. In this internet age, there is a website devoted to Ho Jo, where one can learn (as I did) that nine Howard Johnson's still remain, the last leaves on the spindly Ho Jo tree; soon to be eight, with the sole Vermont one closing next month.
One can also learn of the great and illustrious history of HoJo's, named after its founder, one Howard Johnson. The man was a marketing genius who almost-singlehandedly invented the fast food business. He started the first HoJo in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the 1920s; by the midst of the Depression he had 25 of them going in the state, having also invented the concept of the restaurant francise. He correctly foresaw the changes the automobile would bring, and located his restaurants accordingly. He started the practice of doing most of the cooking in a centralized location and then shipping the product to the local restaurants for the finishing touches. He came up with the idea of standardizing the architecture (and everything else), using signature orange roofs, highly visible and instantly recognizable
(Golden Arches, anyone?). He thought America needed more ice cream flavors than vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry--twenty-five more, in fact--and America agreed.
I didn't know until I was twenty-one years old and had moved to New England for the first time (Boston) that a clam had a body part called a belly, and that this part could be eaten. Before that, I had only known Howard Johnson's clams, and Howard Johnson's clams were expurgated, bowlderized, sanitized. America wasn't ready for the clam belly (or perhaps they didn't freeze, store, and ship well?), so HoJo's selected only the bland and rubbery feet, and fried those in quantity, ignoring the way New Englanders eat clams--whole, with the soft belly tasting strongly of the ocean.
But the piece de resistance (although no one tried to resist it), the creme de la creme, was Howard Johnson's ice cream. I was especially partial to the flavor peppermint stick, which sounds awful but was fabulous. I do believe that HoJo's ice cream would stand up well even now, in this era of premium and gelati and $3.50 cones.
Why did Howard Johnson's die out? Poor management, lack of interest, cost-cutting, competition, changing tastes--whatever. It's time had come and gone.
The last time I was at a Howard Johnson's was in New Hampshire in 1986, at four-thirty AM in the dead of winter. We had gotten up in the middle of the night, dragged our 6-year-old out of bed, and gone with friends to see Halley's Comet. The only way to view it, the newspaper had said, was to wait for the wee hours of the morning, and go out into the country where there were no lights to interfere.
But the night was bitter cold--way below zero--and, even though it was clear out, Halley's Comet looked no more visible than any ordinary star, perhaps even less so. Afterwards, we passed the HoJo's, saw that it was open, and stopped there for pancakes. We were punchy from lack of sleep, but I remember it as one of the most enjoyable meals ever, a sort of clandestine conspiratorial party, all of us up and dressed and exhausted, out at a time when the rest of the world slept on.
I knew it was virtually impossible that I'd ever see Halley's Comet again (next time it comes, it will be the year 2062). What I didn't know was that I'd never eat at another Howard Johnson's.