On last night's episode of Mad Men, "Far Away Places," Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) head off to sunny Plattsburgh, NY to visit the Howard Johnson's flagship (a "completely debauched and unnecessary fact-finding boondoggle" originally pitched by Roger Sterling). Howard Johnson's iconic slanted, bright orange roof figures prominently in the episode, a beacon for the chain's fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream. Don and Megan get the "royal treatment" — a sampling of everything on the menu. "The colors are bright and cheerful," says Don. "The kids have candy, a little bar for mom and dad." He asks: "Would you say it's a delightful destination?" Megan replies, "It's not a destination, it's on the way to someplace."
Originally started as a soda fountain/ice cream stand, the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain peaked at over 1,000 restaurants (the company entered the lodging business with motor lodges in the 1950s). (HoJoLand.com has a concise history of the company.) Chef and author Jacques Pepin famously worked for the company for almost ten years (starting in 1961) alongside chef Pierre Franey in the test kitchens developing recipes and mass producing food. See Pepin's op-ed for the New York Times in 2005 on the occasion of the closing of the last Howard Johnson's restaurant in New York City. He wrote, "We made fresh stock in a quantity requiring 3,000 pounds of veal bones for each batch, and we daily boned 1,000 turkeys and made 10 tons of frankfurters."
In 1979 Marriott bought the Howard Johnson's company and promptly shut down all the company-owned restaurants and "had them either demolished or converted into other restaurant chains." (Wikipedia has a thourough breakdown of the dizzying amount of changes in ownership through the years). Franchised restaurants remained untouched, but over the years, they almost all shuttered. A 2009 story from the Milford Daily News says that only three restaurants remain: Lake George and Lake Placid, New York, and Bangor, Maine.
Here's a clip from Mad Men and commercials from the 1960s (including one for the frozen line of Howard Johnson's foodstuffs):
Video: Howard Johnson's on Mad Men
Video: 1960s Commercial: Howard Johnson's Navy
Video: 1960s Commercial: Howard Johnson's CLAMboree
Video: 1960s Commercial: Howard Johnson's The Flavor of America
Video: 1960s Commercial: Howard Johnson's Frozen Foods
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