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The Last Howard Johnson’s in the Universe

America’s first great restaurant chain comes to the end of the road

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A few months ago, on a chilly Thursday afternoon in late October, Jon LaRock rubbed his hands together and looked out over the empty parking lot in front of his restaurant. As a blanket of thick, wet snow began to settle on top of it, LaRock started pacing. Snow signals the start of the slow season in the sleepy resort town of Lake George, New York, and it had arrived earlier than usual. The battered sign outside, ringed in burnt orange, seemed to beckon through the flurries to no one in particular: “Howard Johnson’s: Last One Standing.”

Fifty years ago, there wouldn’t have been a vacant parking lot here at lunchtime, regardless of the weather. Not in Lake George, and likely not at any one of the hundreds of Howard Johnson’s restaurants operating during its cultural peak in the early 1960s, when it served more meals outside of the home than any entity in America, except for the U.S. Army. Though merely a Mad Men set piece for most people under 50, it would be impossible to overstate the impact that Howard Johnson’s had on mid-century American culture and dining: Its vision of consistency, reasonable pricing, and quality food, replicated ad infinitum by franchisees along the highways from coast to coast, established the blueprint for the modern chain restaurant.

But the locals have long stopped coming to the only Howard Johnson’s restaurant left on earth. The fried clam strips, once so popular Howard Johnson’s was the sole customer of Soffron Brothers Clam Company, are purchased from a general distributor, while the salad bar is full of soggy broccoli, nearly translucent iceberg lettuce, and runny, unmarked dressings. The Howard Johnson’s brand of unique ice cream hasn’t been produced in decades, so LaRock uses Gifford’s, a brand from Maine that sells almost two million gallons of ice cream a year across the country. An iced tea plus a chicken sandwich, consisting of grilled strips laid between a moist bun, costs $18.

Jon LaRock, the man behind the last HoJo’s on earth

None of this is a problem during the summer, when out-of-towners who pack the quirky lakeside motels to capacity spend money on anything with even the slight vestige of authentic nostalgia. The rest of the year, LaRock’s lifeline is a weekly tour bus route that runs from Montreal to New York City every Friday, which stops in Lake George for breakfast. The buses, loaded with 60 or so people who pay $13 a piece for the breakfast buffet, are worth about two grand a week — and if the snow kept coming, the following day’s buses might not. As LaRock explained all of this to me, the only two customers in the restaurant got up and left.

LaRock leases the restaurant and the right to use the Howard Johnson’s name — and with it, a claim on the afterlife of an American icon and the memories of a generation that grew up passing time on road trips by spotting orange roofs — from Joe DeSantis, the son of the man who opened the Lake George location in 1953, but not much else. There’s no longer a corporate structure, or even fellow franchisees, meaning that the menu, marketing, and future of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant brand, such as it is, appears to rest entirely on LaRock’s shoulders.

When the only other Howard Johnson’s restaurant, in Bangor, Maine, shuttered last September, LaRock realized that not only was his the only one left, but it was likely the last restaurant to ever be able to use the Howard Johnson’s name. Because of the tortured ownership of the brand in its final decades, unless another former franchisee re-opens in their original location — or Wyndham Worldwide, which now owns the Howard Johnson hotel chain and all the relevant Howard Johnson’s trademarks, decides to give it another go — after more than 90 years of operations, the legacy of one of the most influential restaurants in American history will probably end with LaRock. In January, news broke that the restaurant and the associated 2.5 acres of real estate were up for sale, making the fate of the last Howard Johnson’s more tenuous than ever.

There are some days, like when a previous Howard Johnson’s owner drives to Lake George just to shake LaRock’s hand and wish him luck, or when a couple arrive from New Jersey just to eat fried clams at a linoleum HoJo’s counter again, when none of that feels important. There are other days, however, when LaRock tries to predict the weather while waiting for tour buses full of French-Canadians, and in those moments, and it feels like he is the captain, first mate, and chief steward of a ship that’s already sunk.

Howard Deering Johnson’s foray into the stomachs of America started at a drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts, which he purchased in 1925. According to Anthony Sammarco’s A History of Howard Johnson’s, the store’s soda fountain and newsstand were immediately successful, but the real seller was the ice cream: Johnson developed a formula based on his mother’s recipe — or, some say, purchased one from William Hallbauer, a German immigrant with an ice cream shop in a nearby town — that used double the legally required minimum amount of butterfat and a custom-designed freezer to make his ice cream exceptionally smooth. Within a few years, Johnson arrived at his signature 28 flavors and opened several extremely profitable ice cream stands along the Massachusetts shore, laying the groundwork for his first full-fledged restaurant, which opened in 1929.

As the historian Paul Freedman recounts in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Howard Johnson stumbled onto the bedrock of his future empire — a network of franchises adhering to precise specifications, tightly interwoven with the sprawling American highway system — a few years later, when he wanted to open another ice cream stand in a prime location in Orleans, Massachusetts, but had neither the capital nor the time. So he convinced Reggie Sprague, a member of the family who owned the land, to build a restaurant there, completely designed and exclusively supplied by Johnson. When it opened in 1935, it was a success, and within the next six years, there were more than 130 Howard Johnson’s restaurants replicated throughout New England, most of them franchised. In 1948, Johnson sold his five billionth ice cream cone, and told Life magazine that he hoped to make “a personal income of one million dollars” that year.

That was the same year that the prevailing architecture and design of the restaurant, an outline now firmly etched into the suburban landscape and the visual memory of generations of Americans, was established. Previously modeled on a colonial style, Freedman notes that the design, originally created for a new Miami location by Florida architect Rufus Nims, was based on “a single-story triangular structure with a considerable amount of plate-glass and a radically sloping hip roof,” which was obviously orange, while the “interior changed from rustic to minimalist modern — light with thin curtains, Formica tabletops, and partitions formed out of repeating circles.” And thus every Howard Johnson’s truly became, as its motto declared, “a landmark for hungry Americans.”

Every Howard Johnson’s location was good, too, according to Carl DeSantis, who paid $2,500 to open the Lake George franchise in 1953. “You could put one at the end of a dirt road in the woods back here and you’d do business,” he told me. “Howard Johnson’s was the king of the road. You could make money anywhere... A lot of guys ended up with Howard Johnson’s restaurants that wouldn’t have made it with any other brand or as independents.” Right off of U.S. Route 9 and with very few restaurants around, DeSantis’s franchise was popular almost immediately; it regularly needed three hostesses to handle the crowds.

DeSantis opened five more franchises over the next two decades, and at one point in the ’80s, his company employed more than 600 people across nine restaurants. One them was a young Jon LaRock, who worked the night shift, from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m.; after sleeping for three hours, he’d go to his day job, running a vending machine company. (Another, in the ’80s, was the future TV star Rachael Ray, who worked as a summer employee for her mother, a supervisor. “When Rachael was a counter girl, my brother-in-law was the director of operations, and he told me he was going to put Rachael as a hostess,” DeSantis said. “I said, ‘You can’t do that. The little kids are going to want to kiss her, the mothers are going to want to hug her, and the dirty old fathers are going to want her to sit on their laps!’ He said, ‘You don’t have to worry about Rachael. She can handle herself.’ And she did!”)

Under DeSantis’s ownership, Howard Johnson’s became something of a second home to many in the Lake George area, a cozy, convenient place to grab a meal. One of those residents, Tim Jansen, needs a calculator to remember how old he is, but he still recalled his childhood order when I asked: the No. 3, a Ham Quickie, which consists of a couple of eggs scrambled with chopped ham. In 1982, Jansen was out on the frozen lake for the winter carnival with a girl from West Virginia who he’d met the night before. She hadn’t dressed for the cold, so they went to Howard Johnson’s to warm up. “I thought if she could stand me eating at Howard Johnson’s, she would be a keeper,” Jansen said, realizing that next year will be their 35th anniversary.

While the food could differ slightly from region to region, the signature dishes, like the “Tender-sweet” fried clam strips and the “frankforts,” were always there, so that a HoJo’s in Maine ultimately didn’t feel much different from one in Georgia. The menu, a roving sampler of comforting, if bland, mid-century American dishes largely “uninflected by ethnic borrowing,” as Freedman puts it, was sizable even by modern standards for a low-priced chain: from decade to decade, it included various cuts of steak, lobster, chops, fish, eggs, triple-decker sandwiches, spaghetti, “frankforts” (a hot dog sandwich of sorts, grilled in butter), baked goods, pies, sundaes, and of course, the 28 flavors of ice cream.

Maintaining consistent quality at each location — a hallmark in the era before chains guaranteed predictability for drivers across the country — despite the dizzying scope of the menu was made possible by the enormous Howard Johnson’s commissary system, which produced, froze, and distributed much of the food to individual restaurants, where franchisees strictly adhered to the minutely detailed preparations laid out in the “Howard Johnson Bible.” For nearly a decade, the commissaries were overseen by the famed French chefs Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin, who were hired by Johnson in 1960 from Le Pavillon, one of the great fine-dining restaurants in New York at the time.

The business was good to the 90-year-old DeSantis, who eventually became president of the New York State Restaurant Association and still lives in Lake George during the summer. Every week, he eats out at a different restaurant in the area with a group of friends who call themselves the Romeo WW club — Retired Old Men Eating Without Women. They’ve visited almost every restaurant in the surrounding towns, except one. “We go all around to eat, to dozens of restaurants, but we never go to HoJo’s,” DeSantis said. “Not that one. I’m not going there, not after what I’ve heard. It’s so bad. The service is poor, very poor, and the product is just not good anymore.”

In 1959, Howard Johnson stepped down as head of the company and his son, Howard Brennan “Bud” Johnson, formally took over. While the elder Johnson remained involved throughout the ’60s, it was arguably the beginning of the end: Bud focused relentlessly on cutting expenses, from marketing costs to the supervision budget, which had once ensured timely service and consistency across locations. Eventually, Bud went after the company’s food expenditures, which amounted to 48 percent of its gross revenue — far higher than the industry average of about a third.

After the company went public in 1961, DeSantis recalls mounting pressure from shareholders to cut spending as well. As falling budgets degraded the quality of the food, the iron-clad system that Johnson devised to maintain consistency became one of the restaurant’s downfalls, since it bound franchisees to a supply chain and brand that was rapidly deteriorating. In Lake George, DeSantis began hearing from customers that Howard Johnson’s felt like fast food served slow.

The rise of fast food and the resulting change in American tastes were death blows. A complicated series of sales, mergers, and spinoffs began in 1979, when Howard Johnson’s, which by then consisted of 1,040 restaurants and 520 motor inns, was sold to a British company for $630 million. Over the next several years, the brand was passed around from company to company: The motor lodges, which Howard Johnson began building in 1954 to extend his vision of hospitality for highway travelers, were split off from the restaurants as a hotel chain, while the franchised restaurants were cleaved from the corporate ones, which were then either rebranded or closed.

In 1986, the remaining franchise owners formed an association, imaginatively named Franchise Associates, and bought the exclusive rights to the Howard Johnson’s restaurant trademark and all remaining locations. They learned little from the company’s earlier mistakes — or perhaps people just stopped caring about HoJo’s — and by the early ’90s, only a hundred or so Howard Johnson’s remained, a number that continued to diminish over the next 20 years. Now there’s just one.

Carl DeSantis got out early. He starting selling his Howard Johnson’s and other restaurants in the ’80s, parceling them off one by one until he retired and handed the family company off to his son, Joe, in 1995. In 2011, Joe DeSantis closed the Lake George restaurant. As he began preparing it for demolition, he placed calls to former employees — really, anyone connected to the restaurant — to see if someone would take on the project of reviving the space, just in case.

LaRock, who used to run the graveyard shift, agreed to lease it from the younger DeSantis. The restaurant was ready to be leveled, so it was in disarray, its electrical wiring stripped and its panel boxes removed. LaRock spent close to $200,000 to make the place functional again, replacing the original kitchen equipment and electrical system in its entirety before re-opening in January of 2015. “I didn’t want to see another building get torn down, I guess,” he told me.

Even with improvements, the building turned out to hold far less value than the name, which LaRock is allowed to carry simply because it was grandfathered in from a previous franchise in a building still in the possession of its original owner. You can’t just open up another Howard Johnson’s anymore.

Despite LaRock’s pacing, the snow came and went throughout the day in Lake George. Later that night, there were just three open bars in town, and one of them lost power at around 8 p.m.; a row of hotels went dark soon after, so everyone slushed over to the one tavern with a generator. Overnight, Lake George received around six inches of snow.

LaRock wasn’t awake to witness the brunt of it because, like most mornings, he had to rise at 4 a.m. to get the restaurant up and running. The roads were rough, but plowed — manageable enough to drive to the restaurant. Upon arrival, LaRock was dismayed to find that both the power and gas were out. Fifteen minutes later, they came back to life, allowing him to reset the gas valves and light all the stoves. The building began to hum.

There are usually six or seven cooks in the summer, but in the winter, LaRock is the only one in the kitchen. Not being able to afford another cook in the off-season means that he often doesn’t leave the restaurant all day. “I love it now,” LaRock told me. “I don’t mind putting in 80 or 90 hours a week because I enjoy it. It doesn’t feel like I have to go to work, I actually enjoy coming here. I get to meet a lot of people.” LaRock’s eyes match the light blue of his short-sleeve button-up, but are weighed down by the permanent bags of someone who has rarely seen more than a few hours of sleep a night for years on end. When I asked how old he was, after several scoffs, he admitted to being in his early fifties, though according to public records, he just turned 64.

The daily breakfast buffet

LaRock started cracking eggs and mixing pancake batter as other employees arrived and set up the dining room, wiping down tables and setting up jams and jellies. By 7:45, the pancakes were cooked. Eggs came out soon after, followed by bacon, sausage, and fruit. Wrapped in tin foil, everything slid in under the intense light of the heat lamps above the salad bar, which, surrounded by red booths and turquoise walls, sits in the middle of a dingy, vaguely mid-century modern dining room.

Thirty minutes later, the first bus rolled in. The passengers, who had left Montreal in the wee hours of the morning, were famished. They filed in, grazed around the buffet, and spoke softly to each other in French. LaRock, who does not speak a lick of it, bustled from table to table, refilling drinks and making small talk. “Cold?” he asked. “Have a good morning? Well, I’m happy you’re here.”

Only two of the three buses scheduled for that day made it down; considering that the snow might’ve steered all three away, LaRock felt like it was a win. After the buses pulled out of the parking lot and continued on toward the city, he began to walk around the place, imagining what it would look like in a perfect world, a route I imagine he walks daily. He has big ideas and big plans, and the vision is always on his mind.

Nearly every conversation we had turned to what LaRock would do if only there was a little more money to go around. He wants to put another $100,000 into repairs, since a few issues require more immediate attention, like the old furnaces and cracked tiles in the front entrance, which the health department wants him to fix.

After that, he’d go after the obvious stuff, like mending holes in the drywall, replacing the soiled carpet, and fixing the cracked upholstery in the booths. Finally, he’d make the upgrades to directly capitalize on nostalgia: The roof would be painted entirely bright orange again — it is mostly blue right now — and a back corner could turn into a gift shop, selling hats and t-shirts from the last Howard Johnson’s. That could make some money, LaRock said, right after mentioning that he’s now gladly accepting donations. Three people, all unsolicited, sent him money the month before I visited, he claimed; an 83-year-old lawyer from New York who’d never visited the restaurant sent him $100 just because he wanted to see the last Howard Johnson’s stay open.

As LaRock moved toward the back of the restaurant, he acknowledged that if he wants to stay open, he’ll eventually need to cater to a younger crowd. The people who still recognize the Howard Johnson’s brand are literally dying off. His plans for accomplishing that don’t include technology, though. “Every restaurant you go into now has televisions in them, they have their little computers on the end to order your food yourself,” LaRock said. “Here, we still do it where we write it on the tickets and bring it to the kitchens, and that’s what we want to keep doing. That’s part of the nostalgia. Plus, it don’t cost me any money!”

The restaurant doesn’t have a website, either, and LaRock, who says he’s “not much into the computer stuff,” has never looked at his Yelp page, which has an average of 2 stars from 33 reviews. (It was unclear in our conversation if he knew what Yelp is.) And while there’s a market for the brand under his care online — there’s a fan site full of every conceivable detail anyone would like to know about Howard Johnson’s, plus a competitive memorabilia Facebook group — he seems blissfully unaware of it all.

Instead, LaRock plans to start serving chicken wings, pizza, and beer in an auxiliary dining area in the back. He clicked open the sliding door to that room and stood in the middle, pointing out where the bar would go. There’s a glass wall that looks outdated, so he’d replace that with a nice brick wall. A fireplace could go there, maybe even a jukebox, one that wouldn’t require quarters. It’ll be friendly and comforting, a place you could go with both a date and your parents.

When I spoke with LaRock again last week, shortly after the building and lot were publicly listed for sale, he insisted that DeSantis’s listing “is not going to affect me at all. He’s had the land for sale for 25 years now, and he’ll have it for sale for the next 25 years now, unless I buy it. Ain’t nothing going to happen here.” (Repeated attempts to reach Joe DeSantis or a representative for DeSantis Enterprises were unsuccessful.)

Standing in the room where he used to serve Howard Johnson’s ice cream, back during better days for him and the restaurant, LaRock spent more than 10 minutes waxing a proper future for the building. The business builds quickly in his mind. One improvement would lead to the next, and soon, the place would be bustling. Then the snow wouldn’t matter much at all.

Update, 10/12/17: Jon LaRock has been arrested and charged with sexually abusing and harassing more than a dozen of his employees.

Everett Cook is a writer based in Boston.
Brianna Ashby is a Connecticut-based illustrator and co-founder of the digital film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Fact checked by Muna Mire
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

Read more Eater features:

America, Pizza Hut, and Me, by Jaya Saxena
Why the Kitchen of the Future Always Fails Us, by Rose Eveleth
The People’s Cheeseburger, by Willy Blackmore
The Baker and the Bicycle, by Samantha Maldonado

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