Monday, May 16, 2005

Losing another icon

With the arrival of the interstates and America’s embrace of the automobile came the need for roadside diners and lodging along the country’s byways. With its bright orange roof, Howard Johnson’s loomed as a beacon for tired and hungry travelers, becoming a stopover of choice (and often necessity) for those on the move.

Like so many things linked to our nostalgic glances backwards, Howard Johnson’s is slowly fading away, as the chain that once had 800 restaurants stretching across the fruited plane, is now down to eight. According to Walter Mann of North Haven, Connecticut, the decline of the chain began 25 years ago, after the company was acquired by a British conglomerate. Mann, who runs a website devoted to the venerable roadside chain, indicates that the company has been sold two more times since and now sits in the hands of Franchise Associates, Inc.

My experience with Howard Johnson’s is limited to a couple of stops over the years in Springfield, Massachusetts, traveling westward on the Mass Pike. One could usually get a burger--fat and greasy like it was meant to be--not dry like cardboard as many of the processed fast food versions are. Granted, with the arrival of the food Nazis and all the health warnings against any of life’s guilty pleasures, fat and greasy hamburgers are the food equivalent to cigarettes--items guaranteed to get you listed as a “leper” and shunned, if caught using

I also recall a song by the New England band NRBQ. I’m not sure what the song title was, but they sang a song with the words, “Howard Johnson’s got his HoJo working, HoJo working on me.”

Mrs. Words tells of a childhood memory of bowling and burgers at the local Howard Johnson’s in Falmouth. Her friend, from the ritzy side of town, that being Cumberland Foreside, used to have a birthday party which meant bowling and then a post-lanes shindig at the orange-roofed eatery on Route 1. The Mrs. recalls it being her first (and only) birthday party where she went to a restaurant.

“It was fun to be able to choose anything off the menu,” said Mrs. W.

Interestingly, the former HoJo's in Falmouth became a well-known local eatery for several years, with this writer logging a season of discontent waiting tables there. During my winter of desperation in 1997, while between my series of dead-end corporate gigs, I worked for the eatery slinging hash and regaling diners with my sharp wit and caustic sense-of-humor. Fortunately for me, a falling-out with my boss made my stay there relatively brief--I wasn't much of a waiter.

Mrs. Words, who travels about the state and occasionally southern New England, recently stayed at one of the remaining eight HoJo’s while working in Bangor. She recalls the waitresses being very friendly, but that the cleanliness of the hotel wasn’t up to par with competitors such as the Ramada, Days Inns, or Holiday Inns that she’s stayed at.

With Bangor being one of the few left, I hope I’ll have the opportunity over the next few months to stop in, chat with the friendly staff and have one of their 16 flavors of ice cream (they used to have 28) before they shutter the place and tear it down.

3 comments:

ChefDunn said...

My family and I used to go to the HOJO's on 128 in Massachusetts. We always stopped there on our way from where we lived in MA to our summer home in Maine. I was pretty small then but remember it being one of my favorite things about heading north. It made the 2 hour trip worth it.

What happened to HOJO's tends to happen to a lot of food establishments. When you've been open for a while things get stale and you stop being challenged. You get bored and it shows. The one thing I know most about the business is without challenge, without innovation, you're dead. Maintaining status quo is not enough. It’s just too damn competitive.

Your sister said...

Jim,

I worked at the HO JO's in Lewiston, ME for several years during high school, 'memba?

I LOVED my orange waitress ensemble, with a matching plaid button on apron!

Listmaker said...

The Hojo's in Times Sq. is closing soon. I've only been there twice but the first time was on a 7th grade "Teen Club" trip with my school after seeing "Little Shop of Horrors" off-broadway. I need to get back there before it closes -- it is exactly as you'd imagine a Hojo's that has been in Times Sq. for years would be like.

I also lived in a Hojo's for my first semester of college because of overcrowded dorms. I'll miss you Hojo's.