The History Of Howard Johnson’s Restaurant

The Howard Johnson’s when it was open, courtesy of

In the 21st century restaurant franchises are commonplace. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, and countless others have become staples when it comes to the country’s eating habits. Cape Cod is no different as one can attest to when driving along Route 28 as familiar logos and colors of these establishments have been ingrained in our culture for decades.

Restaurant franchises are the norm today, but did you know that the very first restaurant franchise ever was located on Cape Cod? In Orleans where Route 28 and Route 6A meet once stood the very first franchised restaurant, a name that became a part of American history throughout much of the 20th century. That name was Howard Johnson’s.

Howard Deering Johnson, the chain’s creator, grew up just outside of Boston in the town of Quincy. Johnson’s first foray into business came when he purchased the drugstore where he had been working in 1925 on Beale Street in Quincy’s Wollaston neighborhood. There he would begin his journey toward nationwide recognition by adding butterfat to his homemade ice cream, coupling that with higher quality ingredients.

The staff of the Howard Johnson’s from Summer 1936, courtesy of

The ice cream became a huge hit. This was followed by grilled hot dogs and fried clams at the store bringing in droves of customers. Johnson then opened an ice cream stand in 1925 on Wollaston Beach next to a home he was leasing for the summer. Legend has it Johnson sold as many as 14,000 cones in a single day at his stand.

In 1929 the first traditional Howard Johnson’s restaurant would open in Quincy Square with business booming initially. However the Stock Market Crash in October curbed any growth of the restaurant and nearly put Johnson out of business. Johnson survived and in the coming years would take a chance on a new idea, that being franchising.

In 1935 Johnson had the desire to open a new restaurant in Orleans on a tract of land owned by Eugene Sprague. Located where Route 28 met Route 6A it was a perfect spot to catch the eye of thousands of motorists daily. Time and money were the sticking points as Johnson did not have the time to run a second location nor the money upfront to lease the land. A compromise was met when Johnson asked Eugene’s son Reginald, a lifelong friend, about his desire to operate the second location. A franchise was born.
Howard Johnson would sell the rights to use his name and logo in addition to shipping the same food products to another site. Thus the new location would essentially be a carbon copy of the original. It was a new concept for the restaurant industry. A half-acre plot of land would be developed into a new Howard Johnson’s which opened in May 1935.

The plaque commemorating the original Howard Johnson’s franchise, courtesy of

The project left Reginald $17,000 in debt, fortunately it was a success. By the end of the summer of 1935 the restaurant was serving as many as 700 meals per day, not including ice cream. Initially opened seasonally within two years Sprague had paid off his debt. Piggybacking on the success of the first franchise in Orleans Johnson would press on. Within the same year new franchises would open in Dorchester and Dedham. By 1939 there were 107 Howard Johnson’s located in every New England state but Vermont as well as seven other states. These locations would gross annual revenue of $10.5 million or over $183 million in 2017.

Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s Howard Johnson’s would become a symbol of Americana. Its iconic orange roof and Colonial Revival architecture made these places visible from a great distance. The hot dogs, fried clams, hamburgers, and twenty-eight flavors of ice cream made it a must for any traveler. At its peak during the 1970’s there would be more than 1,000 locations opened across the United States.

On Cape Cod the success of the first Howard Johnson’s led to a subsequent location opening in Hyannis on Main Street where Fresh Ketch operates today. There would also be restaurants at the Bourne Rotary, at 350 Bradford Street in Provincetown, on Route 28 in West Dennis, on Route 28 in Centerville, and briefly on Main Street in Falmouth.

As for the original, it would remain successful. This was in part due to the staff of loyal locals, many of whom would remain members of the Howard Johnson’s family for decades. It gave the first link in a long chain a feeling of a small-time Mom & Pop run diner. These employees became family and would hold reunions long after the restaurant itself had changed hands.

The Lost Dog Pub which sits at the former location of Howard Johnson’s today, courtesy of Chris Setterlund

Howard Johnson’s would add a string of highly successful motor lodges to its repertoire beginning in 1954. A location still resides today in West Yarmouth, though it now falls under the umbrella of Wyndham Hotels. Howard Deering Johnson would go on to also create a pair of other successful franchises familiar to longtime Cape Codders: Red Coach Grill and Ground Round. Johnson would retire in 1959 leaving the operation to his son Howard B. Johnson. The patriarch of the franchise died in 1972 with his chain still flying high.

Howard B. Johnson would sell the company in 1979 for $630 million. Slowly the number of Howard Johnson’s restaurants began to dwindle. The original franchise in Orleans would become Adam’s Rib in 1979 before changing to Fog Cutter. Today it is the Lost Dog Pub. As of June 2017 the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant resides in Lake George, New York and is currently up for sale meaning the end of the chain’s existence could be imminent.

It will still live on thanks to, a book on the history of Howard Johnson’s by Osterville author Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, and the plaque designating the site of the first franchise where Route 28 meets Route 6A in Orleans.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
Contact Us | Advertise Terms of Use 
Employment and EEO | Privacy