The Boston Globe recently reported the closing of New England’s last Howard Johnson’s restaurant:
…and provided a nearly century-long timeline of the rise and fall of the country’s once greatest restaurant chain:
In honor of the occasion of the closing of the last Howard Johnson’s in New England, here’s my HoJo’s story:
As the end of my sophomore year in high school approached, I dreaded another summer under the hot Ohio sun, hoeing for seven or eight hours a day. The previous year, a couple of my classmates talked me into joining them working on a truck farm in the muggy Cuyahoga River valley a three-mile bike ride from home. For 50 cents an hour, we toiled alongside a half-dozen Puerto Ricans, who spoke very little English and taught us lots of Spanish seldom uttered in polite company, or in Mexico, I was to learn a few years later.
As summer got underway, some mornings we’d get a brief reprieve from the hoeing; we’d don rubber aprons, grab machetes and cut broccoli or cabbage before the sun transformed the morning dew into the humidity that defied the cooling effect of perspiration for the remainder of the day. Then, it was three or four hours of hoeing until a half-hour break for lunch, which we brought from home and stashed in the walk-in cooler till noon. After lunch, it was back to the hoeing until, some days—maybe—a half-hour before quitting time, we’d get to cool down, bunching and tying in the shade the broccoli we’d cut that morning.
I so disliked farm work that I quit a few weeks before school and went to work for my step-father. He and his brother were manufacturing of some of the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) gear. DACOR (Davison Corp.) was behind schedule rolling out some of its first two-stage underwater breathing regulators. I was promised better pay than from the farm to work at a machine shop in Cleveland the last few weeks of summer. I never got paid, but I learned both that I didn’t have to settle for farm work and how to operate a drill press. My stepfather’s attitude was that I owed him.
When I heard that a new Howard Johnson’s restaurant had opened, also a three-mile ride from home, I decided to apply for a job. I was hired as a prep-boy in the kitchen, where I sliced and measured out portions for sandwiches and various menu items. Howard Johnson pioneered processing and proportioning food in company-operated central commissaries. The prepared foods were then distributed to both company-run as well as franchised restaurants for final preparation.
In the back room where I prepped, there were two, very thick three-ring binders with pages for every single item on the menus, which changed for each day of the week. Each entry in the binder included the ingredients down to the tenth of an ounce, how the dish was to be prepared and presented, including the proper garnish and exact plate or bowl in which it was to be served. Everything was documented to ensure high quality, standardized food and service.
Most of the prepared entrees were frozen and, depending on that day’s menu, heated in a steam table, on the stove or baked in an oven. Short-order items like sandwiches, burgers, fries, steaks, salads and breakfast were, of course, prepared to order. One of the benefits of HJ employment was getting to order during your meal break from that day’s menu, which repeated each week. After a few weeks, you could focus on a few favorites. Mine were the clam chowder, short ribs and Indian pudding.
During the lunchtime rush, I was sent out front to run the cash register. If there was a lull at the register and fountain orders were backing up, I’d help out at the counter. It was a quick study learning the location of each of HoJo’s famous 28 ice cream flavors and how to make them into sodas, shakes, malts, sundaes and splits.
The Independence Howard Johnson’s was located near the cloverleaf intersection at the beginning of the area’s first freeway, connecting the southern suburbs to downtown Cleveland. Each HoJo’s had a turquoise-capped white cupola atop a bright orange roof so travelers would immediately recognize the restaurant. In 1956 there were some 500 of them, mostly in the eastern US. Ours was visible and accessible to people traveling the Cleveland area in all directions; it became popular quickly.
Apparently, however, the Howard Johnson’s that had hired me was not living up to company standards. While some HoJo’s were franchised, ours was company owned and managed. About two weeks after I’d started, several managers from the Chicago and Boston offices arrived to check things out. There had been complaints. The next day, without notice or explanation, everyone was laid off.
I was, as the saying went, crushed. But before throwing in the hot, damp towel and returning to the farm, I decided to look for a job downtown. The next morning, as I boarded the bus into downtown to look for work, I recalled my only previous experience with Cleveland employment, which hadn’t turned out so well.
It was, like most summer jobs in northeastern Ohio, hot and sweaty work that didn’t pay well. I was 13 years old. Somebody had told me that if I went down to Municipal Stadium in the morning before a Cleveland Indians game I could get a job hawking soda to fans.
I hooked the steel coin changer from my paper route to my belt with enough money in it to make change after paying for my first case of orange drink from the stadium vendor. I strapped the halter for the case of orange drink around my neck and shoulders, trudged out into the hot, crowded stadium, and up the steps, shouting above the crowd noise, “Hey, orange drink here! Cold, refreshing orange drink.”
After selling a case, I’d go buy another, and so forth, trying not to get stuck with any extras at the end of the game. By then, I had a pretty heavy bag of coins, but wasn’t feeling all that confident of making it across downtown to the bus stop back to Independence with my meager but hard-earned proceeds intact. It was a tough neighborhood, and I was definitely not from around there. I made it to the bus and home without incident, but it was not an experience I wanted to repeat.
So, the day after my HoJo’s layoff, recalling the trip downtown for the ill-fated stadium job a couple years earlier, I hopped on that same bus for the 12-mile ride to seek my fortunes in Cleveland again. I answered several walk-in ads in that morning’s Plain Dealer and asked for work at the book stores and stamp-and-coin shops I would visit on my occasional forays into Cleveland and any other store I passed that looked like they might need help. The best I could come up with was selling encyclopedias door-to-door, on commission. That, to my mind was pretty much equivalent to hoeing, with less certain results.
I was exhausted and defeated when I walked in the door at home that evening. My mother greeted me, listened patiently to my tale of woe, then said, “A lady from Howard Johnson’s called, and asked you to call her at her hotel when you got home,” and handed me the number.
It was one of the head honchos from Chicago. When I told her who I was, she asked, “Have you ever cooked breakfast?”
I guessed that she meant in a restaurant. I said, a bit hesitantly, “Well, I make breakfast for the family sometimes.”
“Would you like to cook breakfast at the restaurant?” she asked. “Mr. Yanke (one of the other managers who’d come in to straighten things out) wants you to come in at 6:30 in the morning. He’ll get you started. The lunch cook comes on at 10:00, and he’ll help out while he sets up.”
I was willing to do almost anything to avoid hoeing or selling door-to-door, and I did like to cook—even though I’d never cooked for more than a few family members. So I agreed. I showed up at 6:30 the next morning. The next couple of weeks are a blur. Mr. Yanke and the lunch cook, who also had survived the layoff, were good and patient teachers.
The system that Howard Johnson pioneered, I realized years later, was an important part of my success. The organization of the kitchen, its equipment, the layout of the whole building was all planned to work together. The procedures I was taught those first few days, those fat binders—there was little room left for failure if I paid attention.
Short-order cooking, which is basically what HoJo’s was, can be intense at busy times. Being well prepared, with enough of everything you need in the right places within reach, keeps one calm, cool and collected when the crowds come. It didn’t take long before I could handle the breakfast shift on my own. I’d help the cook set up the kitchen for the lunch rush and continue helping in the kitchen if needed, then go out front to help at the counter and register. By the end of the summer, I was cooking in the mornings & handling the register, fountain and counter in the afternoons, and totalling the register receipts before heading home.
In those days, you had to be 16 and have working papers to be employed for eight hours a day doing anything other than farm work. I would be 16 in October. So, whenever asked about my papers, I’d stall with whatever excuse came to mind. It was not exactly convenient to get to the school offices that closed at 4:00, where the working papers were issued when I didn’t get off work until 3:30, and it was a long, uphill bike ride. I hoped that I’d become a good enough employee that they wouldn’t care if I was 15. After awhile they quit pestering me to get my working papers.
That summer I learned enough about cooking and the restaurant business to over the years get several jobs cooking and catering and 20 years later to actually open my own restaurant at Onion Valley, California, 9,250 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada. But that’s another story.
So, it is sad that HoJo’s is about gone. Many restaurant chains and franchises today essentially operate on quality-control, supply and distribution models similar to those HoJo’s pioneered. Looking back through the timeline provided by the Boston Globe, it seems that, like many ideas of early 20th-century entrepreneurs, HoJo’s got eaten up up in the merger-and-acquisition fervor of the 1980s.