Everybody Loved Ho Jo’s. I worked at Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in the late 1970s, and I can remember being hooked on this jingle on an ongoing basis. Howard Johnson was supposed to be your “home away from home.” I worked the front desk at the motor lodge, and we were trained to make the guests feel like family.
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I can remember the regulars that would stay with us on a routine basis. They would come in late at night and would take advantage of our 24-hour restaurant. They would also stop into the cocktail lounge or order room service at all hours. It was a pretty good deal!
“If it’s not your mother, it must be Howard Johnson.”
Anyone who grew up in the 1960s, ’70s, and 80’s recognized those bright orange rooftops and blue signs that made the famous Howard Johnson motor lodges and restaurants.
History of Howard Johnson’s
Howard Dearing Johnson, a World War I veteran, officially opened his first Ho Jo’s restaurant in Quincy, MA, in 1929. Johnson became famous for using double the butterfat of competitors’ products in his original 28 ice cream flavors. These flavors immediately became popular. Johnson was known to have said, “I think I have more ice cream flavors than anyone in the world!”
The chain of restaurants featured clam strips, french fries, burgers, etc. The establishment was a hit, and by 1939 it grew to 107 restaurants along the east coast.
In 1959, Howard Dearing Johnson decided to retire, and his son, Howard Brennan Johnson, took over the company. At this point, Johnson, Jr. opened the first Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge.
Howard Brennan Johnson, who had gone to Yale and Harvard Business School, had always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Johnson, Sr. had told his son that he should “start at the top of the company and work his way down.”
When Howard Brennan Johnson became president in 1959, he wanted one thing. He wanted to expand the company in a big way.
The Explosion of the 1960s
In the 1960s, after Johnson’s son took over the Ho Jo’s chain, things began to take off for the company. The motor lodges were often paired up alongside the restaurants at highway exits, making them a convenient stop for travelers in need of a place to stay or somewhere to eat along their route.
At its height, Ho Jo’s restaurants grew to the largest restaurant chain in the world, and the chain of motor lodges grew to 1000 in total.
Howard Johnson’s also began to distribute a line of their frozen food in supermarkets across the northeast. Additionally, the company opened limited menu establishments under different names and venues, such as California Outlets and Ground Round. They also became involved with a variety of late-night pubs that hosted entertainment.
Howard Johnson’s: So. . . What Happened?
Unfortunately, the 1970s were a difficult time for many motor lodge chains like Ho Jo’s. The energy crisis brought with it a slowdown, if not a halt, in vacation trips along the highway. So, the number of travelers stopping by for a meal at the restaurant or a stay in the lodge decreased significantly.
Additionally, many fast food chains such as McDonald’s were beginning to move in and take the place of eating establishments like Ho Jo’s.
As a result of the difficulties of the 1970s, the company had taken a hit financially and had gone into debt. By the time the 1980s had come along, other well-known hotel chains had started to move in.
In the hopes of recovering some of his debt, Johnson then decided to sell part of the company off to Marriott and Prime Motor Inns. Ultimately, Johnson realized, however, that he was just no longer going to be able to compete with the new hotel and restaurant corporations.
Johnson eventually sold out to a British corporation by the name of Imperial. The British company kept some of the restaurants operating. By 1994, there were only 100 Howard Johnson restaurants left. The final Ho Jo’s Restaurant closed in 2021. It was in Lake George, New York.
Ho Jo Facts
- Howard Johnson motor lodges were once a staple of the American roadside landscape.
- Howard Johnson motor lodges were family-friendly, with kid-friendly features like outdoor play areas and swimming pools.
- The chain was also known for its signature orange roof, a defining feature of each Howard Johnson lodge.
- Howard Johnson lodges were some of the first motels to offer 24-hour room service.
- Howard Johnson began to allow pets to stay overnight while their owners were on vacation in 1956.
- Major league references: The hotel was often referenced as a setting or sponsor in songs and movies related to baseball – such as Damn Yankees (1955) and Kiss Him Goodbye (1984).
- In 1976, almost 50 percent of all hotel rooms in America were operated by Hilton Hotels Corp., Marriott Corp., Sheraton Hotels Inc., or Howard Johnson Co.
- Howard Johnson’s fried chicken gained immediate success after its appearance on the national TV show “The Michael Douglas Show” on ABC on Oct 3, 1975.
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