Comment: The end of the Howard Johnson era brings back memories of ice cream

An era is over. We have come to the end of the road.

Recently, we learned that the last Howard Johnson restaurant in the world had finally closed irrevocably.

The news barely caused a ripple on the surface of the lake of time. Howard Johnson was old news. No sudden trauma killed him; he died of old age and neglect.

People who care about these things — they can be found on a Facebook page called HoJoLand — are arguing among themselves over whether the latest to close should even be considered an official Howard Johnson. Set in the spectacularly scenic town of Lake George, New York, it was just a Howard Johnson name, though technically it was an actual franchise of the once-ubiquitous chain.

The color palette at the Lake George location was, blasphemous, mauve and burnt sienna. The menu bore little resemblance to the offerings that once wowed customers at more than 1,000 restaurants in 42 states and across Canada. And, judging by a photo of the now-abandoned place, only seven flavors of ice cream were offered at the end: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, coffee, chocolate chip cookie dough, maple, walnut, and ice cream sorbet. ‘orange.

Only seven? Part of the thrill of going to a Howard Johnson restaurant was the abundance of ice cream flavors they served. At a time when ice cream choices were mostly limited to chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, Howard Johnson provided access to an exotic world of black raspberry, Swiss almond and coconut ice cream.

Twenty-eight flavors in all, and although the selections have changed over the decades, the number of offerings has always remained the same.

Closer to home lists Howard Johnson’s former restaurant locations in Chattanooga and East Ridge. The restaurants were franchised separately from the motels beginning in 1986. The hotels are now part of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, with locations in Chattanooga, Cleveland, and Spring City, Tennessee; and Dalton, Georgia.

Howard Johnson’s was founded in 1925 by Howard Johnson, a World War I veteran who borrowed $2,000 to purchase a pharmacy in Quincy, Massachusetts. The store sold patent medicines, “toiletries”, games, newspapers, and ice cream at its soda fountain.

The ice cream outsold everything else, especially after Johnson bought a recipe that used only natural flavors and doubled the amount of fat. Soon a channel was born.

But it wasn’t just ice cream. For me, as a boy in the back seat of the car on a family vacation, Howard Johnson meant fried clam strips. The menu was actually quite extensive – not just “hamburgs” and “frankforts”, but everything from fried veal cutlets and Maryland crab cakes to Welsh rarebit and grilled brisket sandwiches. But I only got the clam strips.

Little did I know at the time that the chain was based in Massachusetts, where clams practically run wild through the streets. I just knew the clam strips were good every time I had them.

This consistency was the secret to the channel’s success. Fast-food restaurants were not found at every exit. If you were driving somewhere that needed a stop for a meal, you had to try your luck at a family-friendly stall that might not care about flavor or hygiene.

But you knew what you were getting with a Howard Johnson’s. Me, I received strips of fried clams.

Howard Johnson helped create car culture in America, and car culture helped create Howard Johnson’s. Restaurants with gleaming orange roofs and turquoise trim were a traveler’s oasis in the asphalt desert.

But time caught up with the venerable chain, then passed it. Baskin-Robbins began offering 31 flavors of ice cream. Fast food restaurants have revolutionized highway dining, with faster, cheaper and less exotic meals.

A hot open roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy? Fried scallops? Who needs that when you can grab a quick burger or a bucket of fried chicken for half the price?

Time passes and all good things come to an end. I don’t think I’ve been to a Howard Johnson since 1986, when I stopped for ice cream near the end of a long drive through the southern United States. But I will miss them and everything they stood for.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

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