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May 10, 2005

HoJo Byebye

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Did you guys know that Howard Johnsons is on its last legs? According to this amazing site (and this one too), there are now only nine Howard Johnsons businesses active in the whole country. Here's a list of the last orange-roofed hangers-on.

I always feel like I must be the last person in the world to awaken to these facts ...



posted by Michael at May 10, 2005


Visit the HoJo's in Lake Placid yearly. Fine establishment. Things change, times move on, Hojos almost disappears.

Reminiscing over this makes me feel old. Like a black&white photo. Sometimes they're better. Some of Margaret Bourke-White's are stunning.



Posted by: reader on May 10, 2005 9:49 PM

Interesting that Ho Jo's dying out given that there is still a huge market out in Mom & Pop America for what it supplied.

Wherever I travel I see Cracker Barrel restaurants, and Denny's, which offer comparable (lousy) comfort food.

And Ramada Inns are a comparable in quality (low) motel chain, still going strong.

Posted by: ricpic on May 11, 2005 9:55 AM

Wow, some unexpected personal ties ... Waterbury, Connecticut, where I lived until 1997, has one of the nine (soon to be seven) remaining HoJo's. I patronized it several times and knew a couple of people who worked there. And on one of linked pages, the first "ghost" HoJo's pictured is in Medford, New York, where I've lived since 1997.

Posted by: Peter on May 11, 2005 11:22 AM

Thanks for this very interesting information. I didn't know about this either -- and it's info about a topic that I find very interesting. So it seems to me that, at worst, you are only the second to last to know!

One of the things I find interesting about the chain store phenomenon is that many people who normally think of themselves as being "anti-chain store" often seem to have a soft spot for SOME chain store establishments nevertheless. (Theoretically, chain store "haters" and chain store "lovers" could be two entirely different groups of people, but my guess is that this really isn't as true as one might think.)

Here are some chains that seem to me to be generally "beloved": Woolworth's; Horn & Hardart's Automats (at least in the New York City, and, perhaps, Philadelphia areas). Here are some other chains that seem to be generally remembered with positive emotions (some of them were more popular in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan): White Castle (hamburgers); Tad's Steak (steak "cafeteria"); Ebinger's (baked goods); Jahn's ("old-fashioned" ice cream parlours); John's Bargain Stores (like "Odd Lot" trading stores); Dubrow's (three[?]-branch, "dairy" cafeteria). Finally, here are a list of some other chains (perhaps specific to the NYC region?) that seem to be remembered, at least by a few, with at least some affection: Child's; Schraft's; Bickford's (I believe this was a Boston-based company); Brass Rail; Chock Full of Nuts; Zum Zum; Rexall (drug stores); Whelan's (drug stores); Robert Hall's (discount clothing); Modell-Devega (sporting goods); Marboro (discount/remaindered books); E.J. Korvettes (discount department store); Alexander's; Friendly Frost (large appliances); Loft's (candies); Nedick's (fast food luncheonette).

And while people normally don't seem to think of them as chains, both traditional department stores (e.g., Macy's) and the old fashion movie palaces (e.g., Loew's) were also, in fact, chain "store" operations.

I suspect that Howard Johnson's is another chain, like Woolworths, that is generally remembered across the nation with some affection.

Why are some chains beloved and others reviled? Here are some tentative guesses:

1) I think most of the loved ones are older chains that were essentially local or regional chains. So these establishments didn't seem to represent a disturbing trend towards national and world homogenization -- but rather, instead, they seemed to express the full-flowering of a region's idiosyncrasies (e.g., the Automat).

2) They were part of a retail environment that wasn't as yet dominated by nationwide and worldwide chains (e.g., Wal-mart; MacDonald's; etc.). So these older chains did not appear to threaten the local "mom and pop's" to the same degree. (Although I've read that the early [1920s?] chain stores of Chicago were indeed seen as a threat to neighborhood "mom and pop's.")

3) These older chain establishments seemed to offer a new kind of product or service that was otherwise unavailable locally (e.g., Woolworth's; movie palaces). So rather than being seen as reducing options, they appeared to be increasing them.

4) Many of the beloved chain establishments seem to have originated in cities and not on the highway or in the suburbs. And even some of the later ones that originated on highways (like Howard Johnson's) were essentially indistinguishable from similar urban-originated establishments once they were opened in urban locations --like the three[?] Howard Johnson's that were once located around Times Sq.)

I think a large part of the animus towards chain stores is the perception (which is basically true in terms of the modern day ones) that they are a product of America's suburban / automobile "culture" and not its traditional, pedestrian-oriented, mass transit-built cities.

5) The beloved older food store chains were not, for the most part, packaged fast-food chains, but more like chain store "restaurants" or diners. So although the food at "Chock Full of Nuts" may have been essentially fast food, the food wasn't designed to be taken out. And although the Automats were "waiter-less," they were essentially sit-down restaurants.) So these chains seemed to offer a more traditional (and environmentally friendly, to boot!) product.

6) Some of the chains seem to be beloved, in part, because they brought popular "good" design to the masses. I'm thinking here, for example, of the art deco storefronts of the Woolworth's and Automat chains, the distinctive White Castle and Ebinger storefronts and the incredible Loew's "Wonder" theaters.

7) Starbuck's seems to be a relatively well-liked modern day chain, and I think a large part of this may be due to the distinctive, high quality design of their storefronts, the high quality of their products (I'm only guessing, I've never had anything from a Starbuck's), and their social conscience. I think one reason people "hate" chain stores is because people feel that most of them are replacing establishments that would otherwise be offering "real" jobs instead.

8) I think nostalgia may also be a part of it. People remember some of these older chains affectionately because they were a part of their youth and growing up. So some of today's chains may also, in turn, be remembered more fondly in the future by tomorrow's "nostalgists." (Along these lines, I remember reading an article in which Paul O'Neil, then a New York Yankee, fondly remembered his post-Little League game trips to the local Dairy Queen.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 11, 2005 12:33 PM

I think a lot of the nostalgia has more to do with the fact that these chains are (mostly) defunct - and thus exist only in hazy memory. I'm sure there were equivilents of Jim Kunstler at the time bemoaning the alienating effect of Horan and Hardart's for example (It destroys human contact and replaces it with cold machines!).

Maybe in 50 years, after Wal-Mart is long gone, we will endure ruminations of how magical Saturday afternoon trips to Wallyworld were in some magical faraway youth...

Posted by: jimbo on May 11, 2005 1:58 PM

I agree with Benjamin Hemric's fourth point, that the older chains represented more of a hometown, pedestrian-friendly lifestyle than the 100% auto-oriented modern chains. Most of his other points are pretty good too.
WRT Starbuck's, I suspect that much of its popularity - which is by no means universal, but we'll skip that for now - is due not so much to its product or its social conscience, but rather to the atmosphere its stores cultivate (is that a mixed metaphor?) They have ample chairs and tables that can be moved around to suit various group sizes and often have pleasantly soft sofas. Newspapers and games are scattered around and can be enjoyed at no cost. Customers generally can linger as long as they want. Most importantly, it's been my impression that Starbuck's attracts a respectable but not snobbishly upscale clientele - young couples, groups of college students discussing their assignments, businesspeople working on their laptops between client visits, and so on. You generally *don't* get gangs of thuggish teenagers, screaming babies, the homeless, weird old loners muttering to themselves, and the like.

Posted by: Peter on May 11, 2005 2:22 PM

It's such an interesting question: why do we get attached to some crap pop-cult things and not to others? I have no theory about this at all --I'm completelyi mystified. And so am enjoying everyone else's thoughts. In the case of HoJo, was it the orange roofs? The special je ne sais quoi of their ice cream? The idea that there might be someone named "Howard Johnson" behind the counter somewhere? The way the firm associated itself so quickly with post WWII highway car travel?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2005 7:08 PM

Incidentally, it seems to me that Benjamin is writing an amazing one-of-a-kind hybrid memoir/essay with his wonderful comments on this blog. Here's hoping he's collecting them in a folder on his computer.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2005 7:09 PM

Although I probably ate one meal in my life at a Howard Johnson's, it seems an ominous sign, somehow, that they're about to vanish.

I guess all things pass, but it makes me wonder how much longer I'll be here, myself.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 12, 2005 8:30 PM

Thanks, Michael, for the encouragement! Sometimes I've felt a little self-conscious with my posts, as a number of them have been a bit on the long side. I was concerned that they might be thought of as too intrusive.

But one of the fun things about posting comments to a discussion that you find interesting is the way that it stimulates one's thoughts and forces one to think them through, articulate them and sharpen them. (I do print them out later and save them.)

With regard to your question about why many people seem to have fond regard for Howard Johnson's: I don't know why others may have liked the Howard Johnson's chain, but I believe I liked it for, of all things, the design of its various restaurants! -- both the traditionally styled ones and the more "contemporary" ones. It seems to me that the design good sense of the Howard Johnson's people was similar to that of the Disney people who built Disneyland. Somehow, they were "always" able to create cheerful, welcoming restaurant spaces.

However, my feelings in this regard may be somewhat skewed -- or, even, very inaccurate -- because I've lived my entire adult life in Manhattan, have never learned how to drive, and, when I think about it, have traveled extraordinaly little on America's highways. Most of my car (and highway) experiences have been as a child in my father's car. (He did, however, like to drive around a lot just for the fun of it. So as a child I probably did see an average, or more than average, amount of the region's highways.)

Perhaps the single Howard Johnson's that made the greatest impression on me was the one on Queens Blvd., just to the east of where it goes under the Long Island Expressway. (When this Howard Johnson's was built, the Expressway hadn't been built yet. Instead, the Expressway in this area was some sort of boulevard -- Horace Harding Blvd., I believe.)

This Howard Johnson's was built for the 1939 World's Fair and was, at least at the time, the largest Howard Johnson's ever built. As I remember it (and my childhood memory may be off), it looked like a gigantic, festive Colonial mansion. I always wanted to go inside and explore it.

My impression of contemporary-styled Howard Johnson's (if they were indeed Howard Johnson's and not some other chain) were that they were generally speaking good examples of "friendly" modernism -- airy, light-filled, cheerful, cleanly styled, but warm. In my mind, the ones that were situated along highways brought liveliness to long highway journeys and with their designs captured the original "beauty" of America's early highways -- green meadows, contemporary stone walls, open spaces, sun and light, sweeping lines, etc.

Although I've never really been to a "Starbuck's," I kind of suspected that part of the chain's appeal is for the reasons described in Peter's post. But, the old-time New Yorker in me is puzzled as to how they've been able to maintain this atmosphere -- especially in New York? For example, Chock Full O'Nuts (which by the way was probably one of the most socially conscious chains ever) outlets were famously designed to be physically uncomfortable after a set period of time. And one of the reasons given for the demise of the Automats was the difficulty they had keeping people -- especially poor people -- from hanging out all day long.

I wonder if the high prices enable them to do what Chock Full O'Nuts and the Automat couldn't? (Or maybe like some suburban malls, they play continuous classical music to create a civilized atmospher and repel the incontrovertibly obnoxious?)

- - - - - -

I'd like to add one other reason that some chains seem to get off "free" and other don't. And this one also may apply to Starbuck's.

Reason 9: Some chains are less disliked or less criticized because they are on the "right" side of the "culture wars" -- i.e., are appealing to the educated, sophisticated elites who are the main critics of chain stores to being with.

So this may be part of the reason that some critics might decry a Baskin-Robbins, for example, while ignoring (or welcoming) a Godiva.

Other "chains," in addition to Starbuck's and Godiva, that sophisticates seem to tolerate or welcome: Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn (owned now by Williams-Sonoma?), Urban Outfitters, (that gadget chain, whose name escapes me). (I'm sure there are others, but I'm drawing a blank right now.)

As someone who has mixed feelings about chains (but is probably more "pro" chain store than many) my "real" dismay is not with the chain stores themselves, but with the fact that so few of the modern ones seem to have originated in cities -- in particular NYC. (The only one I can think of is Barnes and Noble.)

To me this seems to be a sad example of what left-liberal, anti-capitalist, anti-American thinking has done to American cities. Such thinking seems to me to have helped to create an American urban version of the "British Disease." (To quote a wonderful book title [although I may not agree with the book itself]: "The Future Used to Happen Here.")

Before I ever heard of Starbuck's, I had hoped that Dean & DeLuca would create a chain similar to what Starbuck's has become. And when I first saw Starbuck's, I believe I thought that this cahin was, indeed, a New York chain. (Although the company is, of course, from Seattle. I've since read that the founder is indeed a baby-boomer, from Brooklyn[?].) But even as I had this wish, part of me said that something like this would never happen, because the thinking of New York elites is so anti-chain to begin with.

So, as a result, New York has been colonized with chains from elsewhere anyway -- chains that "might" have been created here instead.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 14, 2005 7:26 PM

Well, as an ten-year-old child I didn't know what je ne sais quoi was, but I did like their ice cream! And their swimming pool. And over the horizon, waiting for tomorrow, were the Smokey Mountains, or Mammoth Cave, or even Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.

Howard Johnson's was a reliable source of decent meals and comfortable clean rooms--and that pool for the kids--and all at a price that ordinary working Americans could afford. My parents did NOT have a lot of money, so more expensive lodgings were out of the question. (We ate all our breakfasts and lunches out of a cooler, and sometimes dinner too, and I've lost track of how many times Dad patched the rusting body of our ancient Buick.) For a long time travellers had to take their chances with whatever they found in the way of restaurants and motels, and sometimes we had to make do with really awful dumps--dirty rooms, lumpy matresses, cold water, bad meals. Motel chains which imposed dependable standards of quality were a god-send. (AAA's motel and restaurant ratings also helped a great deal.)

The sneering contempt toward such chains comes mostly from the cultural "elites" who can afford the best and who despise those who are pleased to find "good enough" for they little money they have. As the population ages, there are fewer and fewer people who remember what things were like back then--and naturally few journalists and academics are interested in reminding us of facts that inconveniently contradict their prejudices.

It all seems a long time ago, now since those cross-country trips. The memories dim, but I do remember the difficulties and how much of an improvement Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn were. I'm sorry to see Howard Johnson's fail, and will always remember them fondly. So here's to those evil captains of industry who figured out how to make a profit giving ordinary working people what they wanted. Thanks, from a kid who had a wonderful time.

Posted by: pst314 on May 15, 2005 2:10 PM

Hi. I have been looking for info reguarding the old Friendly Frost stores, thus I came upon this site...with someone's mention of the chain. My father was a salesman to store manager to district manager for the Friendly Frost Stores throughout the 60's and 70's. The original store was located on 123 Frost St. in Westbury, a place I visited often, and where my father worked. Thinking back, the name "Friendly Frost" seems like a silly name for an appliance store. I do get a kick remembering the store street sign tho, with those neon atoms spinning around a nucleus! If anyone has any memories of this store I would love to hear them. I was told that the stores closed in the 1980's. I wonder where that old sign went to? Randee:

Posted by: Randee on May 21, 2005 11:16 PM

Hi, Randee. I'm the poster who mentioned "Friendly Frost."

Sorry, but I only have vague memories of Friendly Frost myself. But you may want to post what you did here on the Queens (nostalgia) Board. (Just type into any search engine: Queens Board.) In the past when the name Friendly Frost has come up a number of people seemed to be more familiar with it than I. (You have to register with the Queens Board before posting. It's free, but there is a two post per 24 hr. limit to those who aren't subscribers.)

By the way, it was interesting to find out the origin of the name, "Friendly Frost." I had thought that it was because they started out selling refrigerators. Even so, as you point out, it still is kind of funny name for a store selling appliances -- even refrigerators.

Good luck!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 24, 2005 5:53 PM

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