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January 10, 2014

Book Notes: History of Howard Johnson's restaurants at Danvers library

There was a time when it was hard to travel an American highway without seeing the orange roof of a Howard Johnson's restaurant or motor lodge.

They included several franchises on the North Shore — on Bridge Street in Salem, on Route 114 in Danvers and on Route 1 in Lynnfield and Saugus.

But today only two restaurants in the country display that name: in Bangor, Maine, and Lake Placid, N.Y.

Anyone curious to learn about the rise and fall of this iconic American business — or who simply misses their 28 flavors of ice cream — can listen to Anthony Sammarco discuss his book "A History of Howard Johnson's," at Danvers Public Library Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Mostly, they will learn about the man whose name was on the signs, Howard Deering Johnson, who was born in Dorchester in 1897 and grew up in Wollaston, a neighborhood in Quincy.

"He's called the father of the franchise industry," Sammarco said. "When you franchise your name, you want it to be the same wherever it is.

"He was not just branding his name on the restaurant with an orange roof, but also branding the quality of food and presentation, and the same flavor throughout the country."

The first HoJo's was a drug store Johnson bought in Wollaston using a $500 loan from his mother and $2,000 from a friend of the family, Dr. George Dalton.

The store had a soda fountain that served three types of ice cream, but Johnson introduced his own "rich, creamy ice cream" recipe using natural ingredients, Sammarco writes.

Soon he would open ice cream stands at Wollaston, Nantasket and Revere beaches, and between the three of them reportedly sold 14,000 cones one summer Sunday.

Johnson opened his first restaurant in Quincy Square in 1929 and signed a contract with his first franchisee — who was located in Orleans, on Cape Cod — a few years later.

When he retired in 1959 and turned the business over to his son, Howard Brennan Johnson Jr., there were 675 restaurants and 175 motor lodges bearing Johnson's name, with annual sales of $127 million.

In 1965 there were 8,000 waitresses working at Howard Johnson's restaurants, and former employees often discuss their experiences at his speaking engagements, Sammarco said.

"It did encompass a huge segment of society," he said.

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