Howard Johnson’s Was Cool in the 1960s

Slate's Culture Blog
April 23 2012 4:08 PM

Would Don Draper Really Have Loved Howard Johnson’s?

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Last night’s Mad Men featured two unexpected trips: There was Roger Sterling on LSD, and then there was Don stealing Roger’s idea for a “debauched and unnecessary boondoggle” to… Howard Johnson’s?

For those of us who think of HoJo’s as the blandest of corporate chains, seeing Don jump at the suggestion (“I love Howard Johnson’s,” he said eagerly) caused a bit of a doubletake. Was Howard Johnson’s cool in 1966?

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Sort of. The mid-1960s were Howard Johnson’s heyday: In 1965, the chain’s restaurant sales topped McDonald’s, Burger King’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s combined. It was an unlikely success given the company’s origins: In 1925, Howard Deering Johnson opened a drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts. After discovering that his soda fountain was most popular part of the store, he decided to focus on ice cream. He began opening concession stands along the Massachusetts shoreline that sold soda, hot dogs, and Johnson’s famous ice cream, which was popular in part due to its high butterfat content.

The chain of franchises—among the first franchise operations in the country—survived setbacks like the Great Depression and World War II and won exclusive contracts along new highways like the New Jersey Turnpike. Johnson’s restaurants, famous for their orange roofs and fried clams, spread across the country from the 1930s to the 1950s. By the time Johnson’s went public in 1961, it comprised not only hundreds of restaurants, but also dozens of motor lodges where road trippers could spend the night.

That same year, Johnson hired French chefs Jacque Pépin and Pierre Franey away from New York restaurant Le Pavillon to oversee recipe development in the Howard Johnson’s commissary. The 1962 TV commercial below boasts particularly of the chain’s clams, hot dogs, and ice cream.

By 1966, Howard Johnson’s was an extremely marketable brand—and an instantly recognizable one, thanks in part to those orange roofs. It was, in other words, a dream account for an ad man like Don. At one point in the episode, Megan explains to Don that the hotel feels like just a stop in between places where you actually want to go; the ad below does its best to suggest that such stops can be vacations in and of themselves.

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However, the days when Johnson’s 28 ice-cream flavors occupied a special place in American hearts were numbered. After Johnson’s death in the early 1970s, the company slowly disintegrated. After launching a few mostly unsuccessful restaurants concepts, the company was acquired first by a British multinational, then by the Marriott Corporation (which all but did away with the restaurants), and finally by Wyndham Worldwide, which still operates Howard Johnson hotels. There are only three original Howard Johnson’s restaurants in operation today: two in upstate New York, and one in Maine.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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