For most people over the age of 35 — or perhaps it’s now 40 — the combination of turquoise and orange meant just one thing: Howard Johnson’s. By the mid-1970s, the chain was serving up 28 flavors of ice cream in more than 1,000 restaurants that were styled with vinyl banquets and faux walnut paneling.
It’s now down to just one lonely restaurant in Lake George, N.Y. Warm memories of clam strips were not enough to sustain the roadside chain from changing tastes and a series of poor financial decisions.
While the restaurants have nearly gone extinct, the hotels have not, and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which now own more than 200 Howard Johnson hotels across the country, has been in the process of stylistically resuscitating the chain’s very outdated look. Before the current renovation of the franchised hotels, the rooms looked as if they were stuck in a fussy, frowsy 1980s floral rut. Now, roughly 70 percent of the properties have rooms that offer a modern take on the hotel’s midcentury salad days, complete with interiors painted in orange and turquoise. About $40 million is being spent chain-wide to refresh the hotels.
Howard Johnson (the hotel uses Johnson rather than Johnson’s) is betting big that atomic-age accents and familiar colors will help bring in modern travelers, and entice those with fond memories to come back and stay.
“This is one of the biggest things we’ve done in 25 years,” said Clem Bence, vice president of operations and brand leader for the chain. “We took that iconic history that we have, and added the midcentury modern design. It fits with Howard Johnson and combining the two into what we believe is going to elevate that guest experience.”
If you’re interested in seeing the new rooms, the nearest hotel to Boston is in Quincy.
The renovation of the rooms is a rare positive move for a chain that has been beset by troubles since the 1970s oil crisis sidelined summer road trips and sent the restaurants, and, to a lesser extent the hotels, into a downward spiral. Howard Johnson’s restaurants began as a drug store with a soda fountain in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy in 1925 by Howard Deering Johnson. As highways and turnpikes grew, his restaurants spread like weeds. In the 1960s, a restaurant was opening every nine days. If travelers got hungry on their road trips, it stood to reason that they would eventually want a place to sleep as well.
“He was trying to do the same thing with the motels as he was with the restaurants,” said Anthony Sammarco, author of “A History of Howard Johnson’s: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon.” “They weren’t hotels in the sense that they were actually luxurious, but they became standardized. The architecture was the same. The interiors of the rooms were the same. They actually were quite nice.”
It was the standardization of the rooms that was key, said Richard Kummerlowe, who operates the website Under the Orange Roof.
“It was something that people could depend on,” Kummerlowe said. “The emphasis was on making the experience consistent. If you were driving from one city to the next there was no worry about what you were getting. There would be no unexpected surprises because it was a brand that you knew and trusted. There was even a handbook for the chambermaids to follow at every hotel.”
Kummerlowe said he still has fond memories of being a 5-year-old and pleading with his parents to stay at Howard Johnson hotels and said if Wyndham’s refresh of the hotels is successful, it could help to lure travelers with fond memories.
“Wyndham is trying to latch on to the memories of people like me,” said Kummerlowe, who is in his 50s and lives in Louisiana. “The challenge with this renovation will be to see if they can live up to memories, along with expectations of younger travelers.”
The first Howard Johnson’s hotel opened in the mid-1950s in Savannah, Ga. Sammarco said Johnson tried to radically change what a motel was all about.
“He created something that had these new-fangled gadgets,” he said. “Not only did each room have a telephone, but they also had television sets. The ascendancy of the automobile was incredible for tourism and family vacations. These rooms always had two beds, and you could get a cot or a crib in there as well. It seemed like quite a value for the money.”
Howard Deering Johnson’s son, Howard Brennan Johnson, took over the hotels and restaurants from his father in 1959, and by the early 1970s there were over 700 Howard Johnson locations. But as the restaurants floundered, the hotels suffered. They were sold off and passed between companies. Eventually franchise owners banded together to hold onto the rights to the name. Eventually Howard Johnson was acquired by Wyndham in 2006.
Bence said the genesis of the new room design was to stay playful and retro, but added that it was important to include multiple USB outlets, large televisions, and solid Internet service.
While the hotels stage a comeback, what’s to become of the restaurants? The closest many of us have come to visiting a Howard Johnson’s restaurant was with Don and Betty Draper on an episode of “Mad Men.” Wyndam not only owns the hotels, but also the rights to the restaurants.
This is where Bence drops a delicious tease.
“We continue to look at different options,” he said of the restaurants. “I don’t have any news for you today on the brand, but I will certainly let you know.”