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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Howard Johnson: 28 Flavors by Anthony M. Sammarco

Howard Johnson created an orange roofed empire of ice cream shops and restaurants that stretched from Maine to Florida and from the east coast to the west coast. Known as the father of the “franchise industry” he revolutionized the restaurant industry in the United States and ensured good food and quality prices that brought customers back for more.

Howard Deering Johnson (1897-1972) was born in Wollaston, a part of Quincy, the son of John H. and Olive Belle Wright Johnson. His father was treasurer of the United Retailers Company, a cigar manufactory on Summer Street in Boston; Howard Johnson left school to begin work with his father, but he entered World War I, serving in the American Expeditionary Force, 26th Infantry Division, in France before returning after the Armistice to rejoin his father. His father’s death in 1921 left him heavily in debt, however Howard Johnson was in 1925 to open a corner store at 93 Beale Street in Quincy, where he had a soda fountain and sold newspapers, cigars and three flavors of ice cream. In the 1920’s Johnson began producing a rich ice cream with a doubled butterfat and natural ingredients that brought repeat customers, which was augmented by grilled frankfurters and fried clams. His ice cream stand on Wollaston Beach proved so successful that in 1929 he was able to open his first restaurant in Quincy Square’s Granite Trust Building. Here, he opened a restaurant that served New England fare throughout the day, with specials that attracted business people as well as families.

Howard Johnson’s restaurant was well placed, located at the junction of Dennis F. Ryan Parkway and Hancock Street in a thriving shopping district. In 1929 Eugene O’Neill’s play “Strange Interlude” was banned in Boston by Malcolm Nichols, the mayor, and the New England Watch & Ward Society, and was moved by the Theatre Guild to Quincy, in a theatre opposite his new restaurant. As the play was extremely long, there was a dinner interlude and the theatre-goers flocked across the street to Howard Johnson’s. The restaurant was a great success but the impact of the Great Depression caused severe problems and the credit line his business depended upon was restricted by his bank. The concept of franchising his name was a fairly new business idea but if he let a franchisee use the Howard Johnson name, and purchased all food and supplies from him, he could charge a fee in exchange of the use of his logo, “Simple Simon and the Pie Man.” The franchise concept was quite successful and Johnson is thought of as the “Father of the modern restaurant franchise” in the United States.

Howard Johnson restaurants, in attractive Colonial Revival buildings sporting orange roofs and sea blue shutters, began to be franchised throughout the New England area; by the late 1930’s, with the ascendancy of the automobile, these restaurants were opened on major roads and interstate highways where the travelling public could be assured of consistently high quality foods that was the same served locally or in Maine or Florida. These franchised restaurants sprang up as if by magic throughout the eastern seaboard serving the same delicious Ipswich clams, grilled frankfurters, chops and steaks and twenty eight flavors of his famous ice cream. In 1939 Reader’s Digest did an article that said “Who is Howard Johnson?” so well know had his name become through his successful franchise concept. The public had come to expect quality service, affordable prices and family friendly service and the restaurants became known as the “Landmark for Hungry Americans.”

Opened on June 15, 1935, the restaurant in Dorchester was among the first of the franchises and was awarded to franchisee Harry L. Densberger.  Located on the Old Colony Parkway (now known as the William T. Morrissey Boulevard) near Neponset Circle, those travelling south in the two decades before the Southeast Expressway was built in the 1950’s passed the orange roofed restaurant, and with ample parking space and a solid tradition of quality and family friendly service, was a major attraction for the travelling public. Following World War II, Howard Johnson was expanding so rapidly that his empire was perceived as the world’s largest food chain with hundreds of restaurants serving standardized fare such as fresh roast turkey, the newfangled clam strips as well as whole clams, and twenty eight flavors of delicious ice cream that the public had come to love. The diligent business acumen was incredible and he was quoted as saying that “I think that [building my business] was my only form of recreation. I never played golf. I never played tennis. I never did anything after I left school. I ate, slept, and thought of nothing but the business.”

Howard Johnson retired as president in 1959, his son Howard Brennan Johnson assuming his position with a company that had 675 restaurants, 175 motor lodges and annual sales of $127 million dollars. However, the founder never really retired, as he “continued to monitor his restaurants for cleanliness and proper food preparation. He would be chauffeured in a black Cadillac bearing the license plate HJ-28 [his initials and 28 flavors of ice cream] while performing unannounced inspections of the restaurants.” He created an orange roof empire that attracted the public on a daily basis. “His contribution to the restaurant industry was the idea of centralized buying and a commissary system to prepare menu items for distribution to his restaurants. This helped to insure a uniform consistency and quality, as well as lower costs.” The American public repaid him in kind, as his name will forever be remembered by referring to him and his restaurants as the uncontested “King of the Road.”

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