What Killed Howard Johnson’s?
Jane Weir, American Renaissance, October 8, 2019
Former French President Jacques Chirac died a few days ago, and once again Howard Johnson’s was back in the news. In the summer of 1953, when young Jacques was taking a summer course at the Harvard Business School, he worked the counter at a local Howard Johnson’s, where he was a dab hand at making banana splits. Years later, he liked to say that the company founder, old Howard Deering Johnson, came by one day and commended the future president of France as “an excellent sodajerk.”
The obituaries mangled the tale as they usually do when Howard Johnson’s turns up in the news. The Daily Beast had Chirac “scooping ice cream at a Howard Johnson’s roadside restaurant,” which hardly describes the late, lamented cocktail-lounge-and-bistro at Harvard Square where the future president worked. National Public Radio said Chirac was “flipping burgers,” which would be strange indeed, since in those days Howard Johnson’s didn’t really do hamburgers.
The media are always short on facts when they bring up Howard Johnson’s, usually as an offhand nostalgia reference, as for example when one showed up a few years ago on Mad Men. We often read that the chain went out of business because service declined and it couldn’t compete with fast-food joints, or that the 1970s oil crises killed it, or (more perspicaciously) that after the company went public in the early 1960s, shareholders forced it to cut costs and lower quality.
All of which raise the question of why the company was allowed to decline in the first place. These explanations avoid the real elephant in the room, which was the race problem. Basically, like American cities, public schools, and many amusement parks, Howard Johnson’s was a casualty of 1960s race politics and the “Civil Rights movement.”
The early ’60s saw smear campaigns and widespread demonstrations against Howard Johnson’s, led mainly by black groups in the South, and white college students everywhere else. In October 1962, at Brown, Cornell, and many other institutions, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized protests against the restaurants. At the University of Chicago, the leader was none other than CORE campus chairman Bernie Sanders.
And what was Howard Johnson’s offense? There really wasn’t one, at least so far as corporate policy was concerned. It just happened that in much of the South during the early 1960s, de facto or de jure segregation was the rule. Durham, North Carolina, was the initial focus of protests, because the central organizer, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, was in law school nearby at Chapel Hill. So when demonstrators marched against Howard Johnson’s in Boston or Chicago or Ithaca, they said they were protesting segregation in North Carolina.
Howard Johnson’s was an easy target. It was popular, it was high-profile, and it was everywhere — just like Woolworth’s, which CORE had demonstrated against the previous year. And as a nationwide, public corporation based in Massachusetts and Rockefeller Center, Howard Johnson’s was in no position to court controversy. (No Lester Maddox-style axe handles for the Johnson people.)
The aim of the CORE protests was obvious: They wanted the corporation to force its restaurants to break segregation laws. In the end, though, these protests were such a nuisance that shareholders and company head (Howard Brennan Johnson, son of the founder) lost interest in the chain. They didn’t want this black eye, didn’t need this trouble.
So the Howard Johnson’s corporation diversified and focused on other, less-targetable divisions (e.g., Red Coach Grill; Ground Round; the Motor Lodges), while allowing the flagship chain to sink and eventually dissolve. By the 1970s, franchisees could set their own menus and management policies. Restaurants were gradually sold off to Marriott, Big Boy, or other chains.
If you ate at a “Howard Johnson’s” after about 1973, it probably wasn’t a real Howard Johnson’s, but just a coffee shop with an orange roof and the old signage. Gone from the bill of fare would be the old, eccentric Howard Johnson’s exclusives — the butter-grilled “Frankfort” in a toasted lobster-roll bun and cardboard cradle; giant surf-clam strips they called “Tendersweet Fried Clams;” and the original trademark item old Mr. Johnson invented in the 1920s: high-butterfat gourmet ice cream (28 Flavors! Or so the sign said.).
I visited one of the last-standing fake Howard Johnson’s on the Post Road in Darien, Connecticut, some years back. It used heavy, plastic menus from a Greek diner.
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Even before the CORE trouble, Howard Johnson’s had been the target of race-based complaints involving African dignitaries. In a memorable case from 1957, a Ghana foreign minister and his secretary weren’t allowed to drink their orange juice at the counter of a Howard Johnson’s in Dover, Delaware. The Ghanian said a waitress told him that “colored people aren’t allowed to eat in here.”
From here, the encounter escalated to a level of absurdity worthy of Evelyn Waugh. Ghana’s foreign minister haughtily called for the manager and dressed him down: “The people here are of a lower social status than I am but they can drink here and we can’t!” So President Eisenhower invited him to breakfast at the White House. Ike apologized profusely for the incident, and promised to pay for a new dam on the Volta River.
Then, in 1961, the chargé d’affaires from Sierra Leone was on his way to Washington when he got turned away from a Howard Johnson’s in Hagerstown, Maryland. President Kennedy thereupon sat down and had a pleasant chat with him, while the White House photographer snapped nice photos of JFK and the African diplomat, all resplendent in fur hat and purple robes. Then the President ordered up a special State Department task force to guarantee roadside hospitality for dignitaries from Emerging African Nations.
Amusing as these stories are today, they remind us that race politics of the Cold War era were driven as much by foreign-policy as by domestic considerations — or egalitarian altruism. The Soviets and Americans were both trying to curry favor with the Third World. Nothing delighted the Kremlin more than another lip-smacking instance of racial prejudice in Roadside America. The Soviets urged the United Nations to move out of the racist USA. Left-leaning African newspapers threw tantrums; in Nigeria, the West African Pilot denounced America as a country “still in the dark ages,” with a “completely bankrupted racial policy.”
In those days there were many unpleasant encounters of this sort, but it was the ones at Howard Johnson’s that made headlines. For similar reasons, when a black federal employee wanted to challenge segregation laws in 1958, he didn’t target an obscure mom-and-pop luncheonette, but rather the Howard Johnson’s in Alexandria, Virginia (Williams v. Howard Johnson’s). The plaintiff, an IRS lawyer, claimed he was refused service, and sued for an injunction against Howard Johnson’s, on the grounds that this somehow violated the Constitution’s commerce clause. (The suit was dismissed, and denied the following year on appeal.)
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By 1968 the anti-segregation protests were over, but now there was a new complaint: The restaurants were not hiring “members of the Negro community” as waitresses and managers. This of course was standard in the hospitality business, at least with hotels and restaurants with a mostly white clientele. In Niagara Falls, New York, the city’s Human Relations Commission took a survey of the local Howard Johnson’s and other restaurants and hotels, and found that out of “241 waiters and waitresses employed by these 12 establishments, not one is ‘observably’ a Negro.” (Niagara Falls Gazette, July 26, 1968.)
The Human Relations director, a Mr. Ettinger, then pointed out that most of these restaurants “do employ Negro kitchen help,” and asked, “If they have kitchen help, why not waitresses?”
Such a rhetorical-sounding question does not really deserve an answer, but I’d like to remark, as a personal note, that in the 1960s I never noticed a Negro working anywhere in a Howard Johnson’s, apart from a few black kitchen workers I espied in the South. (As I child, I ate in Howard Johnson’s in about half the states east of the Mississippi.)
No argument about it, Howard Johnson’s was a very white institution with roots in eastern New England: white people serving white-people food to white people. “Landmark for Hungry Americans” was their tagline, and by that they meant the Americans you saw on television and in print ads: middle-class and upscale white folks; families and business travelers. The waitresses tended to be pert young college girls, something like the era’s airline stewardesses with their designer uniforms. Though in the case of Howard Johnson’s, the uniforms in the 1960s came from the House of Dior. In the mid-60s, when Stanley Kubrick planned 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one brand-name restaurant that would appear in the space station was the Howard Johnson’s Starlight Room. Because, of course, in 2001 this would still be the most trusted name in dining!
A word about race and regional differences: From the early 1960s, I recall Negro waiters at grand hotel restaurants in the South; at Morrison’s Cafeteria in Atlanta there were vast Negresses minding hush puppies behind the steam table. In the South, people were used to that. But in most of the country, people were not used to that, and it was most emphatically not what customers expected when they went to Howard Johnson’s.
And this was probably Howard Johnson’s ultimate “sin,” the real source of all the race-grievance. White people had something nice. But it was for white folks.
The notion that Howard Johnson’s was a “racist” organization embedded itself in race-grievance mythology. You may not hear it talked about much these days because there aren’t any more Howard Johnson’s. But it’s alluded to here and there, as in the oft-cited stories about the African pooh-bahs who were denied service in Maryland and Delaware. And if you ask around, you’ll find middle-aged and elderly black people who nourish the folk belief that Howard Johnson’s was a racist, “whites-only” establishment; an impression that seems to be easily corroborated by Howard Johnson’s print advertising of the 1950s and 60s.
Writing in support of affirmative action some years back, the black female president of California State University, Northridge, claimed that as a high school student in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in 1958, she was refused a summer job as a waitress in a “Howard Johnson’s Motor Inn” [sic]. She claims the manager told her that “it was company policy that Negroes should not come into contact with customers.”
Could the manager really have been so candid — or tactless? Probably not. The truth of the matter is that Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges did not employ waitresses, and there wasn’t a Motor Lodge in that vicinity. I suppose this is one of those stories people like to tell because for them the lie contains an essential truth.
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Howard Johnson’s decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s was sad to watch. First, the directors and management decided to advertise the chain as “HoJo’s,” a diminutive that was despised by both Mr. Howard Johnsons, father and son. The company cheapened the menu, pushing a lot of hamburger-and-french-fry plates. Around 1966, they concocted their own brand of soda (“HoJo Cola”) so they could save a few pennies by not paying for genuine Coke and Pepsi and Sprite. Few things turned off visitors to the new-style “HoJo’s” like the discovery they could no longer get a real soda-fountain Coca-Cola.
Meanwhile, the old centralized, quality-controlled food-distribution centers (at times overseen by master chefs Jacques Pepin and Pierre Franey) were discontinued, also to save costs. The restaurants started to promote tacky things like all-you-can-eat fish fries, and new ice cream flavors promoted with loud posters in the windows.
And the waitresses! The college girls from Sweet Briar and Bennington disappeared, perhaps because “HoJo’s” wasn’t a nice place anymore. The waitresses were suddenly very old, and some were deaf.
Around 1968, my father was on a long road trip back from a meeting at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. He had a bottle of King Size Coke with him to ward off driving fatigue. Being an extremely fastidious man, he wouldn’t drink out of the bottle. So he stopped at a Howard Johnson’s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and had a perfunctory cup of coffee. On the way out, he asked the old woman behind the counter, “Could I get a small paper cup?”
“A what?” asked the crone.
“Um, I was asking for a small paper cup. Do you have one?”
“What? You say you want a Maple Walnut Cone?”
This completely baffled my father . . . till after he somehow found himself a cup, exited the establishment, and started to drive off. Then he noticed all the posters in the windows and doorway: Try Our New Ice Cream Flavor: Maple Walnut!