Once found all over the country, what happened to the Howard Johnson's in Brighton?

Once found all over the country, what happened to the Howard Johnson's in Brighton?

At one time, Howard Johnson's restaurants were as ubiquitous in the American landscape as the McDonald's golden arches have become.

Communities throughout the country were dotted with the signature orange porcelain roofs, blue shutters and trademark weathervane atop. Customers flocked there for frankfurters, clam strips and the 28 ice cream flavors. The chain peaked at more than 1,000 by the late 1970s, with local restaurants in Brighton, Greece, Gates and Henrietta.

One of the best loved was at Twelve Corners in Brighton, which was as much a place to meet and greet as to eat.

"Every election day, we would get there at 7 in the morning and then come back at the time the polls closed," said Louise Novros, an emeritus member of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. "When it closed, there was a big hullabaloo, because it was a landmark. It was the place."

The Brighton Howard Johnson's (or Ho Jo's, as the chain became known) opened in 1940 and stuck around until 1985. Ray Tierney III remembered it well. His family ran Tierney Super Duper at Twelve Corners for more than 30 years, right behind the Howard Johnson's.

"As a young man, I would go to work with my dad," said Tierney, who was 14 when his father opened the Brighton store in 1962. "I spent many, many a day at Twelve Corners. (Going to) Howard Johnson's was the treat, so to speak."

Years later, Tierney took over running the store and got involved in town politics. Howard Johnson's continued to be an important place, if for other reasons.

"It was our de facto Town Hall," said Tierney, who was a town board member from 1992 — seven years after the HoJo's closed — until 2011. "A lot went on there. It was almost like a community center."

Indeed, in a 1985 Times Union story chronicling the coming closing, Don Knox said of the Brighton Howard Johnson's, "Here for nearly half a century, residents and politicians, business owners and students have gathered in red-cushioned booths to talk the talk of a town."

Howard Deering Johnson started the operation simply in 1925 with a drugstore soda fountain in Quincy, Mass. He increased the butterfat content of the ice cream and did a booming business. By 1929, he opened a second shop and then, in the midst of the Great Depression, Johnson pioneered the idea of restaurant franchising. His first franchise in Cape Cod was an immediate smash, and the business skyrocketed from there.

By the mid-1950s, Howard Johnson's started opening motor lodges throughout the United States. Howard Johnson's opened the country's first turnpike restaurant, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and as a 1985 news article stated, "The company once dominated the eat-and-sleep business along the country's highways."

By the 1980s, Howard Johnson's shine was dimming. Marriott Corp. bought Howard Johnson's from a British conglomerate and restaurants were closing all over. The Twelve Corners Ho Jo's later became a Princess Restaurant and now is home to ESL Federal Credit Union.

The Wyndham Hotel Group now oversees the Howard Johnson's brand but is primarily in the lodging business, with hundreds of worldwide locations, a corporate spokeswoman said.

Only a Lake George restaurant, remained for several years, though it closed in March 2022.  

Back in 2014, Michael Butler, then owner of the Lake Placid restaurant, said people still stopped at his family's Howard Johnson's for the nostalgia, but much of it is served second-hand, he said.

"Unfortunately, they're dying off," Butler said of the customers who remember Howard Johnson from its heyday. "All (the others) are doing is listening to stories from their parents and grandparents."

Today's corporate eateries owe a lot to Howard Johnson the man, said Butler, who said Johnson developed the concept of kids' meals and boil-in-the-bag food.

"Howard Johnson invented franchising. Any chain restaurant with franchising started with Howard Johnson. The guy was brilliant."

And his legacy left a lot of happy memories all over America.

Whatever Happened to …? is a feature about Rochester’s haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives. 

Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in June 2014.