One of the last two Howard Johnson restaurants will close in a couple of weeks, taking with it its fried clam strips and 28 ice cream flavors — and a slice of roadside Americana so ubiquitous it inspired the title of a Max Apple book, “The Oranging of America.”
The HoJo’s in Bangor, Maine, is closing Sept. 6. And with that, the once-proud restaurant chain that flourished during the youth of so many baby boomers now teeters on the brink of extinction.
The closing will leave only one Howard Johnson restaurant, in Lake George, New York.
Before falling on hard times, Howard Johnson took restaurant franchises to a new level. The orange-roofed eateries once numbered more than 800, with the New England-based restaurant chain predating the ubiquitous Howard Johnson hotels.
Howard Deering Johnson started the business in 1925, when he inherited a soda fountain outside Boston. That evolved into a chain of restaurants featuring comfort food and 28 flavors of ice cream. The orange roof with a blue spire represented a dependable place for travelers to park the family car, grab a meal and spend the night.
In Bangor, the Howard Johnson Restaurant and Lounge was popular in its heyday with travelers and locals alike, including horror and science fiction author Stephen King. King, who lives in Bangor, said he used to eat there often and enjoyed the patty melts and milkshakes.
Owners David Patel and his wife, Sally Patel, kept their restaurant going for the past four years as business slowed and hours were scaled back to just breakfast and lunch.
“It’s not worth it to keep it open,” Sally Patel said Tuesday, noting the hotel side of their business remains healthy and will be unaffected by the restaurant closure. “ We tried for four years. We felt bad to close it.”
It’s the only place that waitress Kathe Jewett has ever worked. Now 68, she started there when the restaurant opened in 1966.
“It’s bittersweet, but it’s nothing to be sad about,” Jewett said Tuesday during a break from serving customers. “I’ve been here for 50 years — and it’s time.”
Fortunately for HoJo fans, the Lake George restaurant appears to be on solid ground and is open year round.
“We’re doing great,” owner John LaRock said. “We’re going to do some renovations this winter — spruce it up, keep it going.”
LaRock said it’s a “good feeling” to be keeping the HoJo legacy alive.
“Knowing I have the only one left makes it special,” he said.
There was a tinge of sadness, though, as Bangor diners digested the news. Christopher Leek, of Orrington, Maine, learned while celebrating his 49th birthday with his girlfriend and his mother that the restaurant he’s visited since childhood is about to close.
“I’m devastated,” Leek said. “It’s my favorite breakfast place. It’s a homey place.”
Walter Mann, of New Haven, Connecticut, who started the Hojoland.com website dedicated to documenting HoJo’s restaurant history, said he and other HoJo fans still hold out hope that an “orange knight” will step forward to revive the restaurants.
“A lot of people have warm, fuzzy memories of a more innocent time,” Mann said. “People certainly crave for something like that to bring back the good memories.”