28 Flavors

How did the largest restaurant chain in the country in the 1960s and 1970s end up virtually defunct today (with only two locations, in Lake Placid NY, and Bangor, ME, both alive mainly for historical reasons)?

I'm talking of course about Howard Johnson's, which I think was the first restaurant my parents took me to as a small child -- famous for 28 flavors of ice cream, clam strips, Indian pudding, and more.

There are a plethora of reasons, but here are a few:

DIVERSIFICATION: Since the name was already famous for hospitality among America's highways and turnpikes, it made logical sense to expand into building Howard Johnson's Motor Lodges adjacent to the restaurants. Plus which, the son of the founder, once he was named CEO, started experimenting with new restaurant concepts -- e.g., a failed steakhouse chain called Red Coach Grills and the more successful upscale burgers-and-more chain Ground Round.

LOSS OF DISTINCTIVENESS: One great thing that helped establish the chain in the 1930s and 1940s was its "28 flavors" of ice cream -- seemingly (at the time) every flavor in the world (including Banana, Black Raspberry, Coconut, Coffee, and even lost flavors like Frozen Pudding and Fruit Salad). About the only distinctive element of the motor lodges was the architecture of the lobby -- a small double-A-frame building with an orange roof.

RUNNING IT FROM CORPORATE: According to the popular reference source Wikipedia, "In 1961, Johnson hired famed New York chefs Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin to oversee food development at the company's main commissary in Brockton, Massachusetts. Franey and Pépin developed recipes for the company's signature dishes that could be flash frozen and delivered across the country, guaranteeing a consistent product."

COMPETITION FROM A DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION: Almost at the same time, unfortunately, McDonald's and other firms were introducing the "fast food" concept for a family restaurant, which started peeling off customers due to its speed, convenience, and lower prices. By comparison, "the Howard Johnson's model of serving pre-made food with high-quality ingredients in traditional dining rooms was costly."

CHEAPENING THE PRODUCT: So the company "attempted to streamline company operations and cut costs, such as serving cheaper food and having fewer employees." (Sound like any industries you know?)

Bottom line: Here yesterday, gone today.

(But what I would give for a scoop of Frozen Pudding right now... (BTW, apparently it's a New England thing. Kind of like lobster rolls. If I ever take up ice cream making again (as I did for a brief period in the 1980s), I'm going to try Frozen Indian Pudding. (Sound genius? Yes!)))

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