Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A HISTORY OF HOWARD JOHNSON’S How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon By Anthony Mitchell Sammarco

How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain
Became an American Icon
By Anthony Mitchell Sammarco
Published by American Palate
Division of The History Press
Charleston SC 2013

Review by Tom Miller

If you recall as I do traveling across the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1950s as an impatient kid in the backseat of the family sedan anticipating the Orange tiled roof that housed the Howard Johnson restaurant and its 28 flavors of the best ice cream in the world, then you may find this book a pleasant but light diversion down memory lane.  Mr. Sammarco is a local Boston historian who has published a number of books regarding histories of Boston and its surrounds and he takes on this task as one of his own as the Howard Johnson story all began in the southern suburbs of Boston.

This book is not the definitive study of the rise and eventual decline of the rag to riches story that it could be.  Rather is a more superficial treatment of a young entrepreneur who turned a corner drugstore that he purchased with a $500 loan into a nationwide chain of restaurants and motor lodges.  Nor does it detail how that empire declined into irrelevance as a result of shortsighted decisions by second generation owners who eventually sold it.  Nor of the subsequent conglomerate entities who stripped it of its assets and essentially abandoned it to the rather large pile of misused businesses that clutter the landscape of the history of American businesses that came and went in the twentieth century.  The book alludes to all of this but really only in glimpses. 

What Mr. Sammarco does in the book is present a basic history of who, what, where and when in his Introduction and then tries to flesh it out in the chapters which come off more as a series of essays as opposed to a coherent start to finish story that one might expect in a more detailed study.  On this nostalgic journey we see flashes of the Howard Johnson’s ancestors, particularly his father, and some surface understanding of Howard’s personality but we never come to know him nor anyone else as a person.  Rather the author gives us brief accounts of how the first restaurant and how the first franchised restaurant came into existence and then in a rather broad brush approach relates the expansion into a chain of restaurants and motor lodges. 

Some of the value in this book is the author’s developing of historical background information for a few of the locales mentioned.  Perhaps the most interesting is the narrative of the events and rationale for the New York’s World Fair of 1939-40 and Mr. Johnson’s partnership with Miss Lydia Pinkham Gove in the development and success of the Howard Johnson restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park which was located right on the main road leading to the Fair.  Additionally Mr. Sammato includes a number of photographs, artists renderings of restaurants and other ephemera which will no doubt stir favorable memories.

He also includes a chapter about employees and associates which obviously draws from what must have been a newsletter or such intended for internal consumption within the Howard Johnson family.  And he briefly discusses the more or less spin off businesses, the Red Coach Grill and the Ground Round restaurants that were started by Howard Johnson’s but he offers little regarding the rationale for them nor much about their successes or failures.

There is much in this book that makes it worthwhile for an afternoon read for someone who would like to invoke some pleasant memories of what was one of the first national chains of franchised restaurants and motor lodges that set the standard for the many who would follow and to gain some insights into its initial formation and growth.  For someone who would like to delve more deeply into what is truly a fascinating story this book provides a nice beginning overview.

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