Two weeks ago I left Maine with my family for an extended visit to Hawaii – my adopted second birthplace. I was born just a few days before Hawaii became our 50th state in 1959; that and my love of surfing are two of my many justifications for visiting this tropical paradise more than 20 times over the years.
At this moment I’m on the Kannapali shore of Maui, trying to produce coherent column thoughts while listening to giant waves crashing and small kids splashing, as dozens of humpback whales dance in the Pacific Ocean just a few feet away.
And, while I should be enjoying this tropical paradise to the fullest, I find myself stuck in a mental loop involving the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. Why? Because history matters and in a just a few weeks, Maine’s last existing Howard Johnson’s restaurant, in Bangor, will be closing forever.
That discovery led me to contact Mike Butler, the owner of what might be the only other remaining Howard Johnson’s in the entire country, in Lake Placid, New York (there is some dispute over the status of another HoJo’s, in Lake George, New York).
“Yeah, it’s sad. This Howard Johnson’s opened in 1956 and my dad bought it in 1958 and my family has run it all this time. We just sold the building and we’re closing for good on March 31,” Butler said. There was more than a trace of sadness in his voice. Sharing the news of the death of a beloved person – or in this case, a beloved business – can be both painful and cathartic at the same time. I felt both.
We then spent 15 minutes discussing the corporate failings of the Howard Johnson’s chain, while reminiscing over our shared love of banana ice cream (one of the celebrated “28 Flavors”) and blueberry toasties – one the greatest food inventions of the 20th century.
My earliest memories of HoJo’s involve its Wednesday and Friday “all you can eat” Fish Fry. My family would go to the Needham, Massachusetts, restaurant all the time in the 1960s and ’70s. That was followed in the 1980s by me frequenting the Wellesley, Massachusetts, location on any given Friday night around 10, for coffee and ego-restoration after having attended and being rejected earlier in the evening at a string of Wellesley College “society socials.”
First launched in the form of a few local concession stands in and around Quincy, Massachusetts, in the mid-1920s, the first actual Howard Johnson’s restaurant opened in 1928, right around the time that cars made it possible for families to eat outside of the home – a major cultural and economic shift.
During the following decades, Howard Johnson’s weathered many bumpy periods, before having significant growth in the 1950s, which coincided with the addition of motels and “motor lodges” to the chain.
The tragedy of Howard Johnson’s is that in 1976, with over 1,000 locations in the U.S., many along highly trafficked and profitable interstate highways, HoJo’s was a leading food-service company in the world with one of the first great, iconic brand identities. While the root genius may have been securing hundreds of highway locations before anyone else, the uniform approach to branding (orange roof, Fish Fry, 28 Flavors, logo treatment, etc.) was revolutionary at the time and established the blueprint for every other restaurant chain that followed.
The state of Maine and the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain share some similarities worth noting. Both were born from hearty New England DNA, where a strong work ethic and a natural aversion to change is the basis for an operating system where myopic stubbornness was/is valued.
Sadly, Maine operates much like the Howard Johnson’s chain from decades ago, slowly falling behind in all areas of our operation, sinking into an economic abyss, while our leaders continue to make promises similar to a new “29th Flavor” being our salvation. (Casinos will save us. Fireworks will save us. New liquor tax plan will save us. Keno will save us. Etc.)
In fact, our critical structural needs are being ignored by clueless executives (politicians), locations (towns) that are closing, we’re losing customers (population stagnation), and we’re facing insolvency (budgets statewide are in crisis).
Like virtually every business that fails, blame can and should be assigned to poor leadership. Here in Maine, we have lots of caring and thoughtful political leaders. But many are also fundamentally incompetent in regard to running the business of our great state, a truth we must acknowledge and address before positive change can occur.
I love Maine, I really do. But, it’s dramatically unchanged from the place I first visited in 1975, and have called home since 2001. And by not changing, evolving and growing during this period of unprecedented global, U.S. and regional transformation, Maine is becoming as outdated and insolvent in many ways as the once great, now defunct, Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain.
Maine is a great brand, but so was Howard Johnson’s. Until it wasn’t.
There is a lot more at stake than banana ice cream or blueberry toasties.