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  Howard Johnson
On the Road Again
by Barry Silverstein
December 3, 2010

Symbolic of a bygone era, Howard Johnson’s restaurants dotted America’s highways through the middle of the 20th Century. Started by (who else) Howard Johnson in Massachusetts in the 1920s, the restaurant chain was one the country’s original franchise operations. It became famous for kid-friendly cuisine, serving “28 flavors” of ice cream and such comfort foods as baked beans, chicken pot pies, frankfurters, fried clams, and macaroni and cheese.

Howard Johnson’s restaurants were a reliable destination for tired and hungry traveling families looking for simple home cooking. They found it at HoJos, as the restaurant became known. Using an outline illustration of “Simple Simon and the Pieman” as its logo and a typeface that resembled lettering that might appear on a classic diner, each restaurant was distinguished by a shockingly bright orange roof, typically set off with an aqua cupola and weathervane. You simply couldn’t miss a HoJo’s when driving down the road.

Howard Johnson’s restaurants grew in popularity as the road system of the United States expanded. In the 1950s, the brand branched out into motor inns and frozen foods (Howard Johnson’s orange “Toastees” was a favorite frozen breakfast food of kids growing up in the 70s and 80s).

Nevertheless, the company couldn’t sustain its growth when American drivers curtailed their road trips during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s. Despite its iconic status, Howard Johnson’s restaurants all but disappeared. Today, there appear to be only three such restaurants left in the U.S., according to the Howard Johnson’s nostalgia website, HoJoLand. (This site, by the way, celebrates everything HoJo, listing all 28 ice cream flavors and including stories about and photos of Howard Johnson’s restaurants.)

The company tried to reinvent itself by creating several different restaurant concepts, among them Red Coach Grill and Ground Round. While Ground Round had a decent run, all of Howard Johnson’s restaurant brands are essentially defunct. The food business is all but gone, although rumors continue to swirl about the possible opening of HoJo ice cream shops under new ownership.

Still, the brand name lives on in the form of Howard Johnson (no apostrophe “s”) hotels. The remnants of the motor inn business were sold several times, and its current owner, Wyndham Hotels, appears to be making a go of HoJo; the chain’s slogan is “Go happy. Go HoJo.”

Howard Johnson currently has properties in the United States, Mexico and China in four tiers: Plaza Hotel, Hotel, Inn, and Express Inn. (Only some of the properties have bright orange roofs.) One of the more elaborate Howard Johnson Plaza Hotels is located right outside Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. This showplace resort is surrounded by seven landscaped acres and has its own private-themed water park called Castaway Cove.

So what’s the character and flavor of today’s HoJo? The hotel chain boasts three distinct amenities that sound similar to what other hotels offer: “Home Office” (work desk, ergonomic chair, free high-speed Internet, and a refrigerator/microwave), “Rise & Dine,” (continental breakfast service), and “Wags to Whiskers” (pet-friendly accommodations).

Curiously, the hotel’s most distinguishing current feature is that it is the official hotel of the comedy basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters. There is an accompanying “Double Dribble” promotion: With each two-night stay at a Howard Johnson hotel, a guest receives two vouchers for a Harlem Globetrotters game on the team’s 2011 North American tour. The Harlem Globetrotters and Howard Johnson also teamed up to run “The Give Happy Challenge,” a contest that awarded $15,000 and a private Harlem Globetrotters appearance to an organization that “spread happiness.”

Well, maybe it’s not so curious a relationship. The Harlem Globetrotters got its start right around the same time as the founding of the original Howard Johnson’s. Both brands developed a reputation for family-friendly fun. In many respects, the Harlem Globetrotters and Howard Johnson represent nostalgia brands – throwbacks to a time when life was a lot simpler. Together, these brands play upon ties between grandparents, parents, and kids, reinforcing experiences that all three generations can enjoy together.

Maybe today’s younger generation has no clue as to the role Howard Johnson’s restaurants played in their grandparents lives, but the HoJo name likely still resonates with the senior set. Indeed, it’s this older generation that may reminisce about their road trips with their grandchildren and help keep the name “Howard Johnson” alive.


Barry Silverstein has been a frequent brandchannel contributor since 2007. He has thirty years of advertising and marketing experience and is currently a freelance writer and marketing consultant. He founded and ran his own direct marketing agency and held executive positions with Epsilon, a leading database marketing firm and Arnold, a major ad agency. Silverstein is the author of three marketing books, including the McGraw-Hill book, The Breakaway Brand, which he co-authored with Arnold CEO Fran Kelly.

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