The Decline And Demise of Howard Johnson’s Restaurant Chains

There’s a fascinating mystery in Lake George. And it’s not about the lake nicknamed the Queen of American Lakes or the strange audio phenomenon that’s normally associated with it. It’s also not about the awe-inspiring ice castles that have proven to be a particular draw to the lake every winter.

Instead, it’s the fact that Lake George is the site of the last remaining Howard Johnson’s in the United States. Of course, we’re not talking about the hotel company that also boasts an enviable culinary reputation. Rather, this is the story of the famous American restaurant chain that once held sway over the tongues and stomachs of Americans with unequaled culinary mastery.

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Well, that wildly popular restaurant chain seems to be dipping and diminishing like the evening sun. One restaurant that seemed to have defied its march into the annals of history has flickered out. And that is the Howard Johnson Restaurant in Lake George.

How Howard Johnson Started His Famous Restaurant Chains

To a certain age group, the name Howard Johnson is a name that evokes not only profound awe but also significant sentimentalism. They know about the popular “28 Flavors” that the restaurant chain came to symbolize and represent.

They know about the orange roofs under which delectable delicacies were served along the highways from coast to coast. Of course, and perhaps above everything else, they also know about the distinctive ice cream the restaurant served—and that firmly set it on the straight road to success.

Howard Deering Johnson, the man behind this fascinating story, was born on the cusp of the 19th century in Boston, Massachusetts. Like the Bill Gates and Zuckerbergs of the 21st century, Johnson would also wear the tag of a school dropout. Only his love affair with school was much shorter than most.

While in his teenage years, Johnson started selling cigars for his father. Then cigarettes happened on the smoking scene marking the slow but steady demise of cigars.

Then his father died. What next?

He borrowed some cash from a doctor-friend, bought a building that served as a drugstore, newsstand, and soda fountain, then set out to dirty his hand in the murky waters of business.

Soon, his entrepreneurial eye recognized the consumer interest in ice creams. He promptly pivoted.

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He would then study how to make the best ice creams—doubling the butterfat content—and adding some ingredients. It was an instant success. His first summer-only ice cream stand sold 14,000 cones on one Sunday.

The Decline And Demise of Howard Johnson’s Restaurant Chains

In 1935, while desiring to grow and expand but hamstrung by a lack of funds, Howard Johnson would help create an enduring business ownership innovation: The franchise.

Within only six years of this innovation, Howard Johnson’s had grown to 150 bustling units spread out across the United States.

Most of these sprouted up along the coast of the Atlantic; a good number of them were in the Sunshine State. By the ’70s, Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain had grown to over 1,000 units.

But the 70s also marked a turbulent phase in the enterprise’s history. Competition sprang up from such behemoths as Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, and Long John Silver’s. Americans’ taste buds were standing at attention.

What’s worse, a recession was sweeping across the American economic landscape leaving in its trail, widespread penury and privation. Unfortunately, the ’80s would even be more stormy.

It was a period marked by a historic spike in oil prices to levels that have scarcely been seen or experienced again. Something needed to be done quickly.

Perhaps some change in business strategy. Some tweaking or tinkering. Unfortunately, all attempts to rebrand and relaunch proved unsuccessful.

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The sun has all but set on the business empire. Even the flickering light that still remained in Lake George, a relic of the once-flourishing business, has also gone out.

The Howard Johnson’s Restaurant In Lake George

Up until June of 2022, Howard Johnson’s in Lake George was the only one remaining in the entire country. At its entrance was a run-down sign with the words: “Howard Johnson’s: Last One Standing.”

What was once the largest American restaurant chain has now folded its hands across its breast. What remains of it are memories, nostalgia, and history.

  • Where Was The Last Howard Johnson’s Restaurant Located? The physical address of the last Howard Johnson’s Restaurant is 2143 Rt 9, Lake George, NY 12845-6117

Even before the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant wound up, its distinctive character had all but faded. Where once customers could hardly find space for sitting or parking was now empty and completely deserted.

It scored only two stars on Yelp and 2.5 on TripAdvisor. It now shares the fate of once mighty empires such as Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt—whose glory days diminished with spectacular finality.

The story of Howard Johnson’s restaurants — its rise and fall — is one of the most intriguing in the history of American businesses.