Many people probably missed this little news blurb in late 2017: The lone remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant in America, located in Lake George, N.Y., closed its doors. Once the most dominant restaurant franchise in the U.S., Howard Johnson’s began fading in the mid-1980s for several reasons, but as one HoJo exec noted, the chain had become “tired and stale.” It’s not the only major U.S. restaurant franchise to go from riches to rags, sometimes seemingly overnight. Here are a few popular chains many people remember fondly that fell on hard times.
5. White Tower Hamburgers
The White Castle hamburger chain that opened in 1921 and still thrives today in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states inspired a notable copycat — White Tower Hamburgers. The chain’s founders carefully studied the successful White Castle model before opening their first location in 1926. The similar names and building designs definitely blurred the line between the two hamburger franchises; a similar copycat action today would almost certainly result in extensive legal action. Yet White Tower went on to open a couple of hundred locations. The last one, in Toledo, Ohio, remained open until 2004.
If you liked hot dogs and/or beer, Lum’s was the go-to place in the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, hot dogs steamed in beer were a signature item at Lum’s, along with the Ollieburger. The first Lum’s opened in Miami Beach in 1956, and by the late 1960s the chain had become such a force that founders Stuart and Clifford S. Perlman bought Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (the two men are often credited with modernizing the casino industry’s financial model.) As for Lum’s, some 400 locations had been opened by 1971, when Kentucky Fried Chicken Chairman John Y. Brown purchased the chain. But various factors doomed the franchise a few years later, and Lum’s began a long, slow decline. The last Lum’s, in Bellevue, Neb., closed in 2017.
Many people are surprised to learn there is still a Sambo’s in existence, the original location in Santa Barbara, Calif. Founded in 1957, Sambo’s had grown to more than 1,100 locations by the late 1970s. Named after founders Sam Battistone Sr., and Newell Bohnett, the chain soon began playing on the theme from the children’s tale, The Story of Little Black Sambo, decorating restaurants with a dark-skinned boy, tigers and more. Of course, that book’s theme hasn’t aged well and by the 1970s some communities complained that the Sambo’s name was racist. Some restaurants changed their name, and in 1981, the chain filed for bankruptcy.
2. Burger Chef
Founded in Indianapolis in 1957, Burger Chef had opened around 1,200 locations throughout the U.S. by the early 1970s; only McDonald’s was bigger. Adults enjoyed the big burgers, the Big Shef and the quarter-pound Super Chef. Kids loved the chain’s characters like Burgerilla and Count Fangburger. Burger Chef even introduced a Fun Meal for kids, years before McDonald’s rolled out its Happy Meal. But Burger Chef’s fate was sealed in 1982 when corporate owner General Foods sold the chain to Imasco, the parent company of Hardee’s. Existing restaurants either switched to the Hardee’s brand or closed. The last Burger Chef closed in 1996.
1. Howard Johnson’s
As noted earlier, the last Howard Johnson’s, in Lake George, N.Y., closed in October 2017. Boston businessman Howard Johnson opened his first restaurant in Quincy, Mass., in 1925, and he soon began offering the use of the HoJo name to other entrepreneurs, creating the first restaurant franchise in America. But the chain didn’t really take off until the post-World War II era, when it positioned itself to take advantage of America’s new love affair with the automobile. By the 1960s and ’70s, the chain’s distinctive orange roof and weathervane were all over major routes across the U.S.; the addition of Howard Johnson’s motor lodges beginning in the 1950s helped cement the brand’s image in the American psyche (and who could forget the famous 28 flavors of ice cream?)
But as with any other enterprise in the business world, models that fail to adapt suffer. While Howard Johnson’s lodging remains, the restaurant chain began a steady decline in the mid-1980s. Part of HoJo’s demise came as the result of business deals; Marriott bought the company-owned Howard Johnson’s sites in 1986, seizing on their prime location along major highways. Some restaurants were demolished to use the land for more valuable purposes; others were converted into Marriott’s Bob’s Big Boy chain. Yet even when the independent HoJo restaurants banded together to boost their collective strength, an executive with the group pointed out the obvious: the restaurant chain needed to be modernized, and that “Howard Johnson was allowed to become tired and stale. We must get rid of that plastic image.” Howard Johnson’s never recovered, but for millions of Americans, the fond memories remain.