Comebacks we'd like to see: #21 -- Howard Johnson's

This post is part of our series ranking the top 25 bygone products and trends we'd like to see return.

If I had a time machine, the first place I'd go would be back into the 1970s, to visit a Howard Johnson's.

OK, maybe, actually, it wouldn't be the first place I'd go. I'd enjoy seeing dinosaurs from a distance, touring the Roman Empire, and I'd have to try to get Abraham Lincoln's autograph. There's no way I wouldn't visit the 1920s, an era I'm fascinated with, and come to think of it, I'd have to check out one of Shakespeare's plays, and... well... okay, Howard Johnson's may not be the first place I'd visit. But I would want to go there.

In fact, now that I think about it, it probably would be my second or third stop. Running from dinosaurs would be thirsty work.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a kid, I didn't know it then, but whenever my grandparents took my parents, younger brother and I out to a Howard Johnson's for breakfast, lunch or dinner or just an ice cream -- we did it all -- we were engaging in a part of American dining history that had encompassed much of the 20th century.

According to the history page at HojoLand, a web site not run by Howard Johnson's, but a fan of Howard Johnson's, the hotel and restaurant chain began in 1925, albeit slowly. It was that year that Howard Johnson took over a drug store, soda fountain and newsstand from his father in Quincy, Massachussetts. Johnson improved the ice cream -- in part by doubling the amount of butterfat -- and that success led to him offering food. By 1929, he had opened up a second restaurant. By 1965, Howard Johnson's was the second largest institution to feed food to Americans, "second only to the U.S. Army," states HojoLand.

If it gives you any idea of just how big Howard Johnson's had become by the time the 1970s rolled around, consider that in 1974 Mel Brooks named one of the town characters, many of whom had the last name Johnson in his western comedy Blazing Saddles, Howard Johnson. He was played by John Hillerman, who later became famous as Higgins on Magnum, P.I.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was about Howard Johnson's that made it so special, and everyone will have their own reasons for being nostalgic for the restaurant, which got into the hotel business in 1954. All I can base it on are my own memories, in which I remember a restaurant that always seemed quiet, probably because by the time I got there, the younger crowd was at that incorrigible upstart growing in popularity, McDonald's. Howard Johnson's, meanwhile, remained a favorite of senior citizens.

So I know a lot of my memories are vague and from the point of view of a young boy surrounded by a lot of senior citizens and my parents, but I remember a lot of wood paneling, really cold and delicious ice cream, cold cole slaw, juicy hamburgers and a lot of friendly waitstaff. I remember spending a week or two at Howard Johnson's when I was a kid, with my parents, while we were waiting to move into a house. I can still vividly remember being six years old and learning to swim in their outdoor swimming pool, and walking into the hotel room at one point and seeing an All in the Family episode in the middle of the afternoon...

These sound like boring memories, but maybe that's my point. Other than its orange roof, Howard Johnson's wasn't flashy. It was very predictable, and that's what a lot of people liked about it. Nothing changed, and that's how you wanted it. If you went into the restaurant in 1978 to get fried clams, you hoped they'd be the same clams that you ate in 1955. (Well, not exactly the same clams. You know what I mean.)

Not that Howard Johnson's is gone. But, no offense to the new owners, it's not what it used to be. In 1979, the original Howard Johnson's Company was sold. For a time, Marriott owned Howard Johnson's and was only interested in the hotels, according to a history at Wikipedia, and began selling off the restaurants. The franchised owned Howard Johnson's restaurants formed an alliance in 1986, creating a company called Franchise Associates Incorporated, with Marriott's blessing. But that just kept the existing restaurants in business rather than adding new eateries. As of a year ago, at least, there were only three Howard Johnson restaurants scattered across America. Today, the Howard Johnson's hotels are owned by a company called Wyndham Worldwide.

My grandmother passed away right around my high school graduation in 1988; my grandfather, in 2000. If I could hop in a time machine, it obviously wouldn't be Howard Johnson's that I'd be so interested in reconnection with; I'd really just go to one, in hopes of seeing my grandparents again. But it is one of the few, if only, restaurants for me that really did feel like a member of the family.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

If you had a time machine, where you go first?

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