For more than seven decades American roads were dotted with the familiar orange roof and blue cupola of the ubiquitous Howard Johnson’s restaurants and Motor Lodges. The company’s founder and namesake was a grade school dropout who became a franchising pioneer and introduced the restaurant industry to centralized purchasing. Johnson repeated his formula with motor lodges, creating one of the world’s largest hotel chains.
In 1965 Howard Johnson’s sales exceeded the combined sales of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. By 1979 the “Host of the Highways” had become the largest hospitality company in America, with more than 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges. But the company saw a decline of its rule over the roadways in the 1970s after a series of events destroyed the company’s earnings. cover photo courtesy Ben Schumin
Howard Johnson first became locally famous for his ice cream. He claimed the secret recipe came from his mother, while other accounts suggests it came from William G. Hallbauer, a retiring German immigrant who had been selling ice cream from his horse and cart in the area at the turn of the century. The ‘secret’ was to double the amount of normal butterfat, and to use only natural ingredients. This created a premium ice cream that was an immediate sensation and earned Howard $60,000 in revenue from his first beachfront stand.
Additional flavors were added – 28 in all – as well as “frankforts,” a premium hot dog sandwich developed by Howard that was grilled in butter. Johnson clipped the frankfurters at both ends and notched them lengthwise. He used only the highest quality meats grilled in a creamy butter, and for buns he used lightly buttered and toasted fresh rolls.
By 1928 Howard Johnson was grossing $240,000 from his store and small network of beachfront ice cream and frankfort vendors.