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HoJo restaurants near extinction

Associated Press

BANGOR, Maine – The orange roof is gone, the Simple Simon plaque is history and the famous 28 flavors of ice cream have dwindled to 16 varieties.

But at least the Howard Johnson name sits atop the building, which is a lot more than hundreds of one-time Howard Johnson’s eateries can say. The chain once had more than 800 restaurants from coast to coast, but these days you can count them on two hands.

Some fear HoJo’s and its orange roofs will go the way of the Studebaker. If that happens, an icon of American dining and one of the nation’s first full-service restaurant chains will disappear.

The decline began after the company was sold to The Imperial Group, a British firm, 25 years ago, said Walter Mann of North Haven, Conn., who runs HoJoLand, a Web site devoted to Howard Johnson’s. It was then sold twice before ending up with Franchise Associates Inc., a Shelton, Conn., firm that has owned it since 1986.

With this month’s closing of a HoJo’s in Springfield, Vt., there now are only eight left in Maine, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, Maryland and New York, Mann said. The Howard Johnson’s in New York City’s Times Square reportedly will close in June.

The future for the chain is unclear. Franchise Associates did not return phone calls. Its Web site is dated with old data, phone number and address.

Howard Deering Johnson started the business in 1925, when he inherited from his father a small soda fountain outside Boston. Customers began flocking there after he began serving ice cream with twice the usual butterfat.

Johnson added other easy-to-fix foods like hot dogs and fried clams to the menu, and three years later opened the first Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Over the next decades, hundreds of franchises opened across the country.

The Howard Johnson hotel chain came later. The first motor lodge opened in 1954, and there still are 464 Howard Johnson hotels around.

Johnson did for roadside restaurants what Holiday Inn, the first national lodging chain, did for roadside hotels. HoJo’s also is credited with being one of the first companies to package its buildings – orange roofs, cupolas with weather vanes, Simple Simon and Pieman plaques – to market its product like McDonald’s uses the golden arches.

But the chain suffered from aging restaurants, a stale menu, lack of marketing and increased competition from other chains, an analyst said.

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