Anthony Mitchell Sammarco grew up in Dorchester looking forward to the Clamboree, an all-you-can-eat clam night at the drive-in Howard Johnson’s. When the author and lecturer gave a presentation in Milton, the onetime home of the company’s founder and namesake, focusing on the now-defunct Massachusetts-based chain, he realized that many other locals had stories and memories to share of the place with the orange roof.
“I began giving this lecture at libraries and historical societies with the idea that I would write a book about it,” Sammarco says. “It took me probably four to five years but every time I would [give the lecture], I’d put out a pad of paper and I’d ask people to tell me little bits and pieces about what they remembered about Howard Johnson’s, along with their name and e-mail address.”
His new book from History Press – the 67th of Sammarco’s career – “A History of Howard Johnson’s: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon,” combines his research with these oral tales to paint a portrait of the local man who built a nationwide empire from one store in Quincy during the Great Depression.
Q. What did you learn about Howard Johnson, the man behind these restaurants?
A. He was somebody who worked night and day to build his business. I think a lot of times people say, “Yeah, I know Howard Johnson’s [the restaurant] but I don’t know who the man was.” This was a man who only had an eighth-grade education and his father had gone bankrupt and when he died in 1921, left a $30,000 debt. His son absorbed that debt and was able to pay it off selling ice cream cones at Wollaston, Revere Beach, and Nantasket Beach in the 1920s at a nickel a cone. This man was driven to succeed and he really did.
Q. What were the key decisions Johnson made that helped his business grow to become, as the book’s title says, an American icon?
A. In the 1930s, it was the standardization of food. He came up with the idea of a restaurant franchise. He would sell you the business but you had to buy all of the food from him. He started the first [franchise outside his Quincy flagship] in Orleans in 1935 that would then be followed the next month by one in Dorchester, the next month in Dedham, and then in Cambridge. By 1940, he had restaurant franchises to the tune of almost 200 throughout New England. He continued to grow, not only with restaurants that he owned outright but these restaurant franchises that purchased all the food from him, so he was able to standardize not only the presentation but the quality. The clams served in Boston were the same clams served in Connecticut and they always tasted the same.
Q. Once you opened the floodgates by gathering people’s stories, what kinds of things did they want to share?
A. I go on WBZ and once I talked about Howard Johnson and people would call in and tell me stories about how their grandfather was his butler. Now here was a man with an eighth-grade education but he had done so well that he had a mansion in Milton. So they told me the stories about how grand a life he had actually led. Other people would call and say, “My granddad was a candy dipper in a candy factor.” These candies were sold on the counter [at the restaurants] so you could take them home after dinner. The Soffron family says, “My family provided clams for Howard Johnson’s for 32 years,” and then they’ll follow it up with photographs of Greek women in Ipswich shucking clams and also the fact that they created the first clam strip to be served to the American public by Howard Johnson’s. People come out with all these stories and sometimes I sit there and think, how do I substantiate it? A lot of times it’s been a good generation since Howard Johnson’s have been around but people have these great stories to tell me. How do you distill it so it appeals to the entire public?
Q.Since so many people have these stories of the place, what will readers get from this book?
A. I think what they’re going to actually get is a fond memory of the past because in a lot of ways, we don’t have that connection with any restaurant today. If I was to do a book on McDonald’s, I don’t think that people would actually have fond memories of McDonald’s. Howard Johnson’s was a place that you had friendly waitresses, you had people that actually worked there for almost their entire careers, and they were friendly to you but you knew them, and they presented you with a wonderful meal. It’s something that’s hopefully going to provide people with that memory, that actually takes them to the point where they might actually think about the things they had known about the restaurant when they were going there.