“Said Simple Simon to the pie man, let me taste your wares.” Nursery Rhyme
Howard Johnson’s had it good. In the 50’s and 60’s, when Americans hit the road, the place they likely stopped was a Ho Jo. Before McDonald’s, Burger King, and later Starbucks made quick, dependable, consistency the norm in highway dining, motorists could count on Howard Johnson’s to deliver quality food at affordable prices.
Indeed, time was that if your stomach grumbled as you rumbled down the turnpikes of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, your only choice was Ho Jo’s. Still, travellers came to crave Ho Jo’s signature fried clam strips and its famous 28 flavors of ice cream.
A trip to Howard Johnson’s was an event. So much so that the writers of TV’s Emmy magnet, Mad Men, worked Ho Jo’s into this year’s story arc, with head Mad Man Don Draper leaping at the chance for a long weekend with his bride at an upstate Ho Jo restaurant/motor lodge.
The chain’s signature look– the orange steepled roof–was an architectural icon that stood out and helped attract patrons. No surprise that Ho Jo’s roof design earned one of the first Federal trademark registrations for the appearance of a building.
As a boy on trips from central New Jersey to Manhattan, I’d delight when my dad would break up the interminable hour and a half trip with a stop at Howard’s, which inevitably included a plump hot dog on a split white bread bun. Later, when we moved to the ‘burbs, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I discovered a Howard Johnson’s restaurant just blocks from our new split-level. That Ho Jo commanded a corner on Route 1, staring down the dilapidated cabins of the Sleepy Hollow Motel across the way, both holdovers from the pre–I 95 era, when a trip through Jersey to points south entailed traffic lights, jug-handles for left turns, and Howard Johnson’s.
So what happened to Ho Jo? Tastes changed. On Mad Men, Draper’s idyllic weekend escape unravels when the insouciant Mrs. Draper-the-second rejects a heaping dish of neon orange sherbet that Don eagerly wants her to enjoy. To Draper, a child of the Depression reared in rural economic and emotional poverty, the Day-Glo Ho Jo orange meant progress. To his young, sophisticated wife, it was garish, passe. In the late ’60s, there was, to quote Buffalo Springfield, “something happening here,” and that “something” in the turbulent Vietnam era didn’t include Howard Johnson’s.
Howard Johnson’s gradually faded away, the orange roofs supplanted by Golden Arches and barrista bars. As of last year, only three Ho Jo restaurants remained. Two are in upstate New York. Are any of today’s Mad Men chomping at the bit to escape their Madison Avenue pressure-cookers for a weekend of clam strips and orange sherbet? We can dream, can’t we?
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The most important thing in life is style. . . . It is style that gives content the capacity to absorb us to move us it is style that makes us care.” ― Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction.