Road trip: The original fast food chain

The Wakefield, MA Howard Johnson’s franchise opened June 14, 1936, at the head of Lake Quannapowitt. Photo via Digital Commonwealth.

This holiday weekend, at the side of the road, you’ll find one McDonalds after another, Boston favorite Dunkin Donuts, that newfangled McCafe, but back at the dawn of the interstate, the dependable, ubiquitous chain restaurant was Howard Johnson’s from Quincy. Fare: Frankforts, fried clam strips, and 26 flavors of ice cream.

In his new (and frankly, phenomenal) history of the country’s interstate highways, The Big Roads, Earl Swift says the original chain with a reputation for unvarying service was launched by Howard Deering Johnson, who bought out a beachfront drugstore in Quincy –

and enticed customers to its soda fountain by offering the richest ice cream in town, which he hand-churned with gobs of extra butterfat. He expanded the ice cream business to a stand on the seashore, adding flavors along the way, and eventually opened a bona fide restaurant in downtown Quincy. His twenty-eight flavors became a signature. His fried clams became a destination.

Johnson intended to open additional locations, but the Depression intervened, so instead a friend agreed in 1935 to share ownership in a second restaurant on Cape Cod, using the Howard Johnson’s name and menu. That was the first roadside HoJo’s, and both the business and the franchise arrangement were hits.

Thirty-nine had launched by year’s end. There were 107 by the end of 1939, and the chain’s “exclusive contract” with an early, ambitious, toll funded highway – The Pennsylvania Turnpike – made it a familiar roadside face.

Jayne M. D’Onofrio, who included the photo above of a franchise in a Wakefield Municipal Gas & Light Department calendar, describes tremendous buzz on opening day. Traffic jams occupied five Wakefield policemen. “When the restaurant closed at 10 p.m. that evening, more than 900 chicken dinners, 1,150 gallons of ice cream, and 4,500 frankfurters (their specialty) were served throughout the 11 hours.”

A last note on Big Roads: Otherwise Swift spends relatively little time in the Boston region and the Northeast. The Central Artery and Big Dig get a passing mention as a late effort by a city to come to term with its freeway through downtown.

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