Howard D. Johnson

Howard D. Johnson

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“This is what I like to do best — help a good man to make a go of it himself.” – Howard D. Johnson

Howard Deering Johnson (February 2, 1897 – June 20, 1972) was an American entrepreneur, businessman, and founder who pioneered the franchising of restaurants and motor lodges called Howard Johnson's.

Johnson is widely regarded as one of the first to introduce the franchising business model to the restaurant industry, as well as introducing the concept of centralized purchasing.

In 1925, Johnson borrowed money to buy a small corner drugstore with a marble-topped soda fountain in Wollaston, Massachusetts where he had been working, and opened Howard D. Johnson Co. Patent Medicines and Toilet Articles shop.  His store sold medicine, candy, newspapers, cigars, and ice cream.

Original Howard Johnson store in Wollaston, MA


Howard Johnson's store in Wollaston, MA circa 1925 (Image source: Donna Lee Hanlon)

Noticing the soda fountain was the busiest part of his drugstore, Johnson sought to offer the highest quality of ice cream. He purchased an ice cream recipe that required 16% butterfat, twice the amount typically used, which made for a rich, creamy texture.

Johnson opened a second store in Wollaston, MA in 1927 and a third store in Nantasket Beach, MA in 1928. By 1928, he had created 28 flavors which later became a Howard Johnson’s trademark.

In 1929, he opened his very first full-fledged restaurant in Quincy, MA with a broader food menu that set the groundwork for his future restaurant expansion.

In 1935, Johnson partnered with local businessman Reginald Heber Sprague, who agreed to buy all ice cream and food products from Johnson, and to allow Johnson to set the standards for all foods served at the restaurant. This effort created the first modern-day restaurant franchise. By the end of 1935, Johnson had franchised 25 roadside restaurants and ice cream stands throughout eastern Massachusetts.

Howard Johnson ad in Yankee Magazine circa 1940 boy eating ice cream


Ad in Yankee Magazine circa 1940 (Image source: Newengland.com)

Johnson’s vision was to provide future American travelers with a chain of restaurants that would offer good food at sensible prices.

By 1940 there were approximately 135 company-owned and franchised restaurants along the East Coast. Their now-famous bright orange roofs and bright blue cupolas made them highly visible to passing motorists.

Howard Johnson's airplane circa 1940s


Howard Johnson with airplane and delivery van (Image source: sometimes-interesting.com)

In 1941, during the World War II era, Howard Johnson directed a franchise network of more than 10,000 employees with 170 restaurants.  

Howard Johnson's turnpike locations on USA map


Ad promoting the "Landmark for Hungry Americans" tagline (Image source: Pinterest.com)

 

Ad for Largest Howard Johnson's in the USA in Queens Boulevard in NYC
Ad promoting the largest Howard Johnson's in the USA located on Queens Boulevard in NYC (Image source: Pinterest.com)



With the state turnpike system growing, one of Johnson’s earliest business strategies was to secure exclusive hospitality contracts along state turnpikes. By the early 1950s, Johnson had 400 restaurants.  

Iconic Howard Johnson's architecture


Architect Rufus Nims designed the iconic orange roof and aqua spire for Howard Johnson's which were highly visible from the roadways (image source: Pinterest.com)

He complemented his nationwide foodservice enterprise by developing lodging properties that shared the same consistent quality and service. He franchised his first motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia in 1954. Johnson repeated his restaurant franchising formula with motor lodges, creating one of the world’s largest hotel chains at that time.

Side by side ads for Howard Johnson's motor lodges and restaurants circa 1950s
Magazine ads for Howard Johnson's motor lodges and restaurants circa 1959 (Image source: Sometimes-interesting.com)

Although Howard retired in 1959 from running his company (his son, Howard Brennan “Bud” Johnson took over the company at age 26 with instructions from his father to continue the organization’s growth), he remained chief executive until 1964 and chairman until 1968.  

When the Howard Johnson's Company went public in 1961, there were approximately 605 restaurants (265 company-owned and 340 franchised), as well as 88 franchised Howard Johnson's motor lodges in 32 states and the Bahamas.

At that time,  the company hired chef Jacques Pépin to oversee food development at the company's main commissary in Brockton, Massachusetts where he  developed recipes for the company's signature dishes (such as Howard Johnson's Clam Chowder) that could be flash frozen and delivered across the USA, guaranteeing a consistent product.

Jaques Pepin clam chowder recipe for Howard Johnson's

Pepin's clam chowder recipe for Howard Johnson's (Image source: newenglandhistoricalsociety.com)

Howard retired as chairman in 1968, and died four years later, in June 1972 at age 75.

In 1999, Howard D. Johnson was inducted posthumously to the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management’s Hospitality Industry Hall of Honor, which recognizes the world’s most successful hospitality business leaders, and most recognizable brands.

Howard Johnson's Simple Simon and the Pie Man logo

Howard Johnson's Simple Simon and the Pie Man logo designed by artist John Alcott circa 1930s (Image source: Pinterest.com)

Howard Johnson's Simple Simon and the Pie Man logo in neon
The Simple Simon and the Pie Man logo in neon (Image source: Pinterest.com)



"I think that building my business was my only form of recreation. I never played golf. I never played tennis. I never did anything after I left school. I ate, slept, and thought of nothing but the business." – Howard D. Johnson

Howard was born on February 2, 1897 in BostonMassachusetts. Like many children in that era, he left elementary school in order to work in his father's cigar business.

He spent 15 years working for his father’s business, eventually becoming the company’s top salesperson. He left the company in order to serve in the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I.

 In 1923, after his father’s death, 27 year-old Howard inherited the cigar company, as well as its $10,000 business debt. He was unable to make the business profitable, and sold it in 1924 and worked in various restaurant jobs to pay off the remainder of father's business debts.

In 1925, Howard worked in a small drugstore at 89 Beale Street in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy, MA. When the owner died, Johnson secured a loan and purchased the store, which also had a soda fountain service counter, and re-named it Howard D. Johnson Co. Patent Medicines and Toilet Articles. 

Howard Johnson's in Orleans, MA
Howard Johnson's store in Wollaston, MA circa 1925 (Image source: Donna Lee Hanlon)

Using his mother’s recipe, Howard used hand-cranked ice cream makers in the store basement and sold his chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream at the marble-topped soda fountain counter. The popularity of the fountain service convinced him that serving better-tasting, higher-quality premium ice cream would further increase his sales.

With that business strategy in mind, Johnson paid $300 for an ice cream recipe that used only natural flavorings and required twice the level of butterfat used in ice cream of that era which made a smoother, richer ice cream texture. 

He also sold his ice cream at nearby beaches to further boost his business. By 1928, Howard was grossing about $240,000 from ice cream sold in the store and at the beaches.

Howard Johnson's ice cream stand on Revere Beach in MA circa 1933
Howard Johnson's ice cream stand at Revere Beach, MA circa 1933 (Image source: nahant.com)

Johnson began selling easy to prepare food items like hot dogs and fried clams at the fountain counter in addition to his ice cream . This made his Wollaston neighborhood store even more popular, and, based on that success, he opened a second business in busy, downtown Quincy, MA in 1929. Strategically located in Quincy Square’s Granite Trust Building, Johnson’s restaurant offered a broader food menu, and laid the foundation for his future full-service restaurant expansion.

interior of Howard Johnson's in the Granite Trust Building located in Quincy, MA circa 1930

Howard Johnson's restaurant in the Granite Trust Building located in Quincy, MA circa 1930 (Image source: Highwayhost.org)

 


Howard Johnson's red and white checkered matchbook cover showing locations circa 1930s


Matchbook cover circa 1930s (Image source: Highwayhost.org)

In 1935, Johnson partnered with his childhood schoolmate and long-time friend, local businessman Reginald Heber Sprague. Sprague agreed to buy all ice cream and food products from Johnson, and to allow Johnson to set the preparation and service standards for all foods at the restaurant they were opening in Orleans, MA. Their partnership effort created the first modern-day restaurant franchise concept.  Howard Johnson is widely credited as the “Father of the Modern Restaurant Franchise”. 

Howard Johnson's historical marker in Orleans, MA Cape Cod
Orleans, MA (Cape Cod) was the site of the first franchise in the Howard Johnson's chain; the restaurant is now the Lost Dog Pub (Image source: nahant.com)

 

 

"I thought I had every flavor in the world. That '28' (flavors of ice cream) became my trademark."  - Howard D. Johnson

In 1935, Johnson partnered with his friend and former schoolmate, local businessman Reginald Heber Sprague, to open a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Orleans, MA  (Cape Cod) that Sprague would own, with the understanding that Sprague's restaurant would purchase all ice cream and food products from Johnson, and Johnson would set the standards for all foods served at the restaurant. This effort created the first modern-day restaurant franchise.

Howard Johnson's first franchised restaurant in Orleans, MA ca 1935
Circa 1935 Orleans, MA (Cape Cod) is the first Howard Johnson's franchised restaurant (Image source: Nahant.com

With the success of Sprague’s restaurant, Johnson began to sign similar agreements with other hospitality entrepreneurs.  The concept was to let an operator use Howard Johnson’s name, food supplies, and logo in exchange for a fee. Johnson's company designed the physical building and interior design, set the restaurant service standards, created the menus and provided the ice cream and specialty food items. 

Howard Johnson's restaurant menu circa 1930s
Menu cover circa 1930s (Image source: New York Public Library)

By the end of 1935, Johnson had franchised 25 roadside restaurants and ice cream stands throughout eastern Massachusetts. Johnson believed the growing popularity of the automobile would change the face of America, and his business growth strategy was to provide travelers with a chain of restaurants along high traffic roadways that would offer good food, clean facilities, and a consistent standard of quality—all at an affordable price.

It was his foresight, adamancy on quality and consistency, and business acumen in selecting high-traffic locations that enabled him to rapidly expand the Howard Johnson’s company from a single ice-cream shop into a national chain of restaurants.  

Howard Johnson's postcard from Maine to Georgia
Howard Johnson's restaurants span the East coast of the USA (Image source: Pinterest)

Howard Johnson's children's menu
     Menus for kids made Howard Johnson's restaurants family friendly (Image source: Pinterest)

1940s: Howard Johnson’s Restaurants and America’s Turnpikes

One of Johnson’s earliest business strategies was to secure exclusive hospitality contracts along state turnpikes. He understood that these new roadways offered a vast customer base of long-distgance travelers who would need food and a break from driving, but who were also reluctant to leave the highway. 

America’s earliest toll roads started to be paved around 1940, a time when Johnson had more than 135 franchised and company-owned restaurants on the Atlantic Coast. Howard negotiated exclusive rights via a 40-year contract to establish restaurants at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike; he opened the very first turnpike restaurant in America in 1940.  Exclusive contracts to build restaurants along the Ohio, Maine, and New Jersey turnpikes soon followed. 

In 1941, during the World War II era, Howard Johnson directed a franchise network of more than 10,000 employees with 170 restaurants.  

Howard Johnson's Pennsylvania Turnpike road map

Turnpike roadmaps across the USA promote Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor lodges 1940s - 1950s (Image source: Pinterest)

 


Howard Johnson's turnpike road map circa 1940s
Road maps across the USA promoted Howard Johnson's dining and lodging locations for hungry, weary travelers (Image source: Pinterest)

As car sales continued to boom, and the interstate highway system continued to expand, Johnson established similar agreements for exclusive food rights on turnpikes in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Kansas, Illinois, and other states throughout the decade.   

Howard Johnson's ice cream delivery truck circa 1949
Howard Johnson's Ice Cream delivery truck circa 1949 (Image source: Pinterest)

1950s: Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges

In 1952, Howard Johnson's opened its 351st restaurant and became the world's largest food chain with hundreds of restaurants serving standardized dishes like fresh roast turkey, fried clams, hot dogs, and the famous 28 flavors of Howard Johnson’s ice cream. The road-traveling public relied on Howard Johnson’s restaurants to provide family-friendly menus, service, and consistent quality.

Howard Johnson's advertisement with smiling blonde woman
Life Magazine advertisement for Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor lodges ca 1958 (Image source: Pinterest)

He created Howard Johnson’s instruction manuals for his franchise managers and employees how to run a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, detailing everything from food preparation to uniforms and interior decor. Johnson tested all the recipes down to the last detail before they were sent to the restaurants to ensure the homemade taste survived the process of scaling up from one meal to thousands of meals before he sent out to his franchisees.

Howard Johnson's instruction manual for waitresses called Now You Are a Johnson Girl
Howard Johnson's instruction manual for waitresses (Image source: Pinterest)

By 1954, Johnson had 400 restaurants. He knew the ideal complement to his nationwide foodservice enterprise was the development of lodging properties that shared the same consistent quality and service. Johnson repeated his restaurant franchising formula with motor lodges, creating one of the world’s largest hotel chains in the 1950s.

Howard Johnson's ad for Rapid Reservation system
Magazine ad for Howard Johnson's "Rapid Reservations" system ca 1960s was a precursor to modern lodging reservation systems (Image source: Pinterest)

He franchised his first motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia in 1954. The franchise agreements enabled Johnson to quickly expand his lodging properties to tourist destinations, a well as to business travelers who needed meeting and banquet facilities. 

Howard retired in 1959 from running his company. His son, Howard Brennan "Bud" Johnson, took over as company president at age 26, with instructions from his father to continue the organization’s growth. 

Howard Johnson's airplane
Magazine ad ror Howard Johnson's (Image source: Pinterest)

1960s: Howard Johnson’s Company Goes Public; Expansion Under Brennan Johnson’s Leadership

The Howard Johnson's Company went public in 1961. At that time, the company consisted of approximately 605 Howard Johnson restaurants (265 operated by the company and 340 by licensees), 10 Red Coach Grill company-owned restaurants (a chain started in 1938  by Howard that specialized in steak and lobster), and about 88 Howard Johnson's Motor Lodges (all franchised), in 33 states and the Bahamas, and  17 company-owned manufacturing and processing plants in 11 states. 

Although retired, Howard Johnson remained active as Chief Executive until 1964, and Chairman of the company until 1968. 

To learn about the Howard Johnson’s company and brands from the 1960s – now, visit our Legacy and Learn More pages.

“This is what I like to do best — help a good man to make a go of it himself.” – Howard D. Johnson

In terms of his legacy, it’s challenging to separate Howard Johnson the man from Howard Johnson’s, his eponymous enterprise.

As a franchise pioneer, Johnson built enormous success in both the restaurant and hotel sectors of the hospitality industry. The rapid growth in his restaurant franchise was largely due to their strategic locations along major highways and downtown streets that were heavily traveled by motorists.

 

Host of the highways
Two page magazine ad  with "Host of the Highways" company branding ca. 1960
Image Source: Pinterest

 

Johnson’s lasting contribution to the restaurant industry was two-fold:

  • the concept of centralized buying
  • a commissary system to prepare menu items for nationwide distribution to his restaurants

Not only did these two systems lower food production and distribution costs, they ensured a uniform consistency and quality. “Consistency and quality” are what Howard Johnson the business man, and Howard Johnson’s the brand, were known for.

Howard Johnson's Clamboree ad Howard Johnson's Sizzle Steak magazine ad  

Magazine ads for Howard Johnson's famous Clamboree and Steak specials

Image Source: Pinterest

 

 

Long before McDonald’s existed, hungry travelers knew they could stop at any Howard Johnson’s restaurant and get the same great tasting fried clams whether they were in Maine or Milwaukee. Johnson was adamant that customers should experience a consistent and high-quality food service regardless of which Howard Johnson’s restaurant they dined at.

To ensure this, he provided his franchisees with The Howard Johnson’s Instruction Manual, an operations manual he wrote that dictated everything from the color of staff uniforms and architectural specifications, to precise recipes and serving requirements.

 

Christian Dior designed Howard Johnson's waitress uniforms ca. 1960s
Image Source: Pinterest

 

While continuing to grow his restaurant franchise, Johnson began building and franchising motor lodges and hotels along heavily traveled motorways using the same successful strategy he used for his restaurant locations.  

 

Calling Card HoJo
 Cards  at Howard Johnson's restaurants promote making lodging  reservations 
Image Source: Pinterest

 

Howard retired in 1959 from running his company. His son, Howard Brennan "Bud" Johnson, took over the company at age 26 with instructions from his father to continue the organization’s growth. Although retired, Howard Johnson remained active in the company as Chief Executive Officer until 1964, and Chairman of the company until 1968.

The 1960s were the glory days for the Howard Johnson’s franchise. Brennan Johnson grew the restaurant and lodging properties from coast to coast and beyond the USA. He took the company public in 1961. At one point during the 1960s era, the Howard Johnson Company was the largest commercial food supplier in the United States. By 1965, there were 770 restaurants and 265 motels, and company sales exceeded McDonalds, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined. Popular Howard Johnson menu items were frozen and sold throughout the Northeast at grocery stores.

 

HoJo Frozen Fried Clams
Popular Howard Johnson's menu items were sold in grocery stores
Image Source: Pinterest

 

Throughout his retirement, while Brennan was managing and growing the company, Johnson remained active as CEO by scouting out new restaurant and lodging locations, and making surprise visits to franchisee locations to ensure the Howard Johnson’s operations manual was being strictly adhered to.  In 1969, the company launched a new franchise brand, The Ground Round, a limited-menu, pub-style suburban chain.

Howard D. Johnson passed away on June 20, 1972 at age 75, four years after retiring as Chairman.

By the end of 1975, under Brennan’s leadership, the Howard Johnson’s empire had grown to 929 Howard Johnson restaurants (649 company-operated), 32 Red Coach Grill restaurants, 63 Ground Round restaurants, and 536 motor lodges (125 company-operated) in 42 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the British West Indies, and Canada.

 

International division of HoJo
Logo for the international division of the company 
Image Source: Pinterest

 

To learn more about the rise, fall, and ultimate sale of the Howard Johnson’s Company from 1970s  through now, as well as the fate of various Howard Johnson’s franchise locations, and the hospitality brands the company launched or acquired, visit our Learn More page.

Books:

A History of Howard Johnson's: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon by Anthony Sammarco (2013)

Book Cover

 

 

Websites |  Blogs  | Online Articles:

1972 Milwaukee Journal: Howard Johnson Obituary

1972 New York Times: Howard Johnson Obituary

2016 Boston.com article: Bangor, ME Howard Johnson’s Restaurant Closing

2016 TheAtlantic.com article: The Very Last Howard Johnson’s

2017 Eater.com article: Lake George, NY Howard Johnson’s Restaurant:

2017 NewEngland.com article: Bangor, ME Howard Johnson’s Restaurant

2017 Entrepreneur.com: 2017 Howard Johnson’s franchise profile

2017 Capecod.com: The History of Howard Johnson's Restaurant