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Published: 8/26/2013 - Updated: 7 months ago

COMMENTARY

Say it ain’t so, HoJo

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Say you’re driving on one of America’s great highways, and you begin to feel hungry.

You know just the thing you want: Fried clam strips. A bowl of perfectly acceptable butter pecan ice cream or any one of 27 other completely inoffensive flavors. A tall, frosty glass of HoJo Cola.

Well, you’re in luck. The iconic Howard Johnson’s restaurants, which were all the rage in the 1950s and ’60s, still exist. Rumors of their demise are completely inaccurate.

For instance, if you are heading to Bangor, Maine, for the American Folk Festival, you could pop into the Howard Johnson’s restaurant there and order breakfast at any time of the day. Or if, while enjoying the fine winter sports opportunities of Lake Placid, N.Y., you have a craving for Howard Johnson’s grilled liver and onions, home-style meatloaf, or Welsh rarebit, the local HoJo is just the place.

But that’s it. The mighty Howard Johnson’s empire, which once numbered more than 1,000 roadside restaurants, is now down to two.

Who, outside of the residents of Bangor and Lake Placid, knew there were any?

Times have changed, of course. HoJo cola is no longer being made, and I truly doubt anyone misses it. The famous 28 flavors of ice cream are now down to 14, though that is still quite a few. The hamburgers are now made from Black Angus beef, a definite upgrade. And at Lake Placid, at least, the massive menu now runs a full seven pages.

Howard Johnson hotels still continue to thrive. But after learning of the existence of the two restaurants from a story on Yahoo Finance, I started to wonder about other chains that once were pervasive but now have diminished in number or disappeared entirely.

Every time I pass the Bennigans on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I am startled anew by the fact that it even exists. For a long time, it was the embodiment of what is officially called a casual dining chain, but I usually call a Fun, Food & Drink Place, after the slogan of the first such restaurant (JT McCord’s) I ever patronized. The fun, or alleged fun, always came before the food.

Bennigan’s set the standard for Fun, Food & Drink places: dark green colors, wood trim, brass accents, ferns, mediocre food. At its height, it had more than 300 establishments to its name. In 2008, its parent company filed bankruptcy, and although the franchisee-owned restaurants remained open, most of those were quickly closed. But 32 of them are still operating today, turning out baby back ribs, reuben sandwiches, and Buffalo chicken salads.

When Bennigan’s went bankrupt, it took with it Steak and Ale, which was more or less an upscale version of the same basic idea. They were owned by the same company (S&A Restaurant Corp.), but the Olde English decor and higher prices of Steak and Ale could not survive the bankruptcy.

As surprised as I was to see that Howard Johnson’s still exists, I was perhaps even more shocked to learn that there is still one Sambo’s restaurant, the original one, on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Sambo’s was always a phantom restaurant to me, a place I had heard about but had never actually seen. How I managed to miss them, I don’t know; it is mathematically improbable. At its peak in 1979, Sambo’s numbered 1,117 restaurants throughout 47 states, not a single one of which I ever encountered.

The food was supposed to be pretty good, too. But the company’s collapse was swift — an ever-increasing number of people found it distasteful to go to a restaurant named for Little Black Sambo, a children’s book that is widely believed to be racist.

This characterization may be unfair: The restaurants were named for their founders, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett. However, they lost whatever mistaken-identity sympathy they may have engendered when they decided to decorate their restaurants with images from the book. Even today, some of the specials carry the names of the book’s characters — the Papa Jumbo and Mama Mumbo specials.

The food, I have to say, looks great. But maintaining some of these traditions is a quick and easy way to close 1,116 restaurants.

Contact Daniel Neman at 
dneman@theblade.com 
or 419-724-6155.



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