February 12, 2007

Howard Johnson's

And the man behind the brand is...
Howard Johnson

“I’ve spent my life developing scores of flavors,” Howard Johnson once lamented, “and yet most people still say, ‘I’ll take vanilla.’”

Howard Dearing Johnson was born in 1897, the son of a tobacco merchant.
He entered the retail business shortly after from France and World War I.
His father died and he inherited the cigar-store business, then heavily in debt. Johnson continued to sell cigars until 1924 when he liquidated the business and bought a run-down drugstore near the railroad station in his hometown of Wollaston, Massachusetts. He went from owing $10,000 to owing nearly $30,000.

The small patent medicine store featured a soda fountain, a candy and tobacco counter and a newspaper stand. Johnson resurrected the business with the newspapers, organizing a staff of 75 boys delivering the news. Within a few years his newspapers had made his business prosperous. But it was ice cream that was his first love. He had only three flavors - vanilla, chocolate and strawberry - and he thought a wider variety of flavors and a better quality ice cream were the keys to success.

Johnson bought an ice cream recipe from an elderly German pushcart vendor whose wares appealed to him. He paid $300 for the peddler’s secrets: doubling the butterfat content of his ice cream and to use only natural flavorings.
To expand his product line Johnson used an old-fashioned freezer in the basement, hand-cranking the ice cream.

He was right. The customers began queuing up for his 28 flavors of ice cream. By 1928 Johnson was pulling in nearly a quarter million dollars a year from ice cream sold in his shop and at several nearby beach stands. He added frankfurters and other easily prepared foods and gravitated towards restaurants in 1929. Within seven years Johnson had peppered 25 restaurants along Massachusetts highways.

He then persuaded a yacht captain on Cape Cod to build a restaurant, call it Howard Johnson’s, paint it blue with a bright orange roof, and sell products Johnson would supply. Johnson also trained the new owner. The venture made money from the start. Howard Johnson had pioneered the art of restaurant franchising.

Johnson next developed the concept of convenience food. He maintained control over the food served in his franchises by preparing the food and processing it in centrally located company-operated plants where it was shipped to restaurants for final preparation and cooking. Johnson insisted that the food be plain, simple, wholesome American fare.

To make sure that the ice cream and food sold in the restaurants that bore his name remained at high quality Johnson spent two days a week on inspection tours. He arrived unannounced and unrecognized, on the lookout for everything from dirty restrooms to sassy waitresses.

The ubiquitous orange-roofed restaurants beget motor lodges designed for the vacationing post-World War II family. The first Howard Johnson’s motel franchise opened in Savannah, Georgia in 1954, five years before Johnson turned the company over to his son. Even in retirement Johnson continued to scout for new restaurant and motel sites.

The entire time Johnson was building a $200,000,000-a-year business he never lost his taste for the ice cream that made him famous. It was his favorite dish. He kept at least 10 flavors in the freezers of his Manhattan penthouse. Every day of his life Howard Johnson enjoyed at least one ice cream cone.

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