By Brent Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
April 26, 2005
SPRINGFIELD -- All I wanted was a big plate of fried clams. This was a Howard Johnson's restaurant, after all, the ancestral home of the clam strip. You can have your orange roof, your macaroni and cheese, your 28 flavors of ice cream. For my money, the HoJo's experience begins and ends with a pile of breaded clam parts and a small cup of tartar sauce. The last Howard Johnson's restaurant in Vermont is on its way out. So, for that matter, is the HoJo's restaurant chain as a whole and, as I would discover when I tried to order it, the big plate of golden, crispy clam strips. The HoJo's in Springfield is the pending victim of a wrecking ball to make way for an addition to the adjoining Holiday Inn Express. When the eatery just off Interstate 91 in southeastern Vermont closes May 15 it will take with it a time and place when American families discovered the appeal of the open road and fast, cheap, fun roadside food. This is not just a changing of the guard in Vermont. When the 40-year-old Springfield restaurant closes, and later this year when the chain's hallmark spot in Times Square shuts down, there will be only seven Howard Johnson's restaurants left in the United States. Seven. That's a remarkable fall from the more than 1,000 Howard Johnson's restaurants -- including eight in Vermont -- that blanketed the country in the 1970s. That was the decade when my family and I headed down the Massachusetts Turnpike toward vacations at Cape Cod or Hampton Beach, and invariably stopped at one of the Mass Pike HoJo's for lunch that invariably included a big plate of fried clams. We're not talking New England Culinary Institute here, but for a 10-year-old it was a pretty nice treat. My wife and I were driving back from Connecticut two weekends ago, and the Howard Johnson's in Springfield made for the perfect break halfway through our four-hour trip. Knowing this would be my last chance to eat there, maybe my last chance ever to eat at a Howard Johnson's, we decided to stop. The lure of the clams ...In classic HoJo's fashion, shelves near the lunch counter display random items for sale: taffy, postcards, ceramic bears, plastic jugs of maple syrup, Christmas-tree-shaped lollipops bestowing "Season's Greetings," even if it's trout season, not the holiday season. The dining room is classic HoJo, old-fashioned but comfortable: gingham curtains, vinyl-covered booth seats, Formica table tops. The most comfortable part was the menu, including Howard Johnson's "famous sundaes" for $4.25. No clams on the dessert list, but they were everywhere else. Fried-clam appetizer, $5.95. Clam roll, $6.95. And there on the entree list, fried-clam dinner, $8.95. The words were barely out of my mouth when the waitress gave me the grim news: The restaurant's supplier ran out of fried clams. There were none to be had until Tuesday. That's not all that was missing. Our waitress half-jokingly told the neighboring table of four elderly folks that they could order "fries and water." She reported that the restaurant was out of clams, spaghetti and mushrooms. The menu's declaration of "breakfast anytime" was no longer true; the waitress said one of the grills was broken and, as permanent closing time was less than a month away, there wasn't much point in fixing it. Fortunately, this Howard Johnson's comes with something most HoJo's don't -- the adjacent Black Bear Pub, which let me drown my sorrows in a cold Otter Creek draft. I settled on the nearest fried-clam substitute, fried chicken with french fries and cole slaw. Bad for your arteries, good for your taste buds. My wife declared her Reuben on pumpernickel "solid diner fare" and the accompanying fries "more fries than a person could reasonably consume." You sure don't walk away hungry from HoJo's, especially when, like us, you order an appetizer called "Mexi-skins" that slathers your basic sour cream/cheese nachos toppings on top of potato skins with a flamboyant "Take that, South Beach Diet!" gesture. Ah, sweet gluttony. My wife and I aren't the only ones paying our last respects. Walter Mann of North Haven, Conn., made his first and last visit to the Springfield site last weekend. Mann isn't just nostalgic. He's heartbroken. Five years ago he started a Web site, www.hojoland.com, that he hoped would call attention to Howard Johnson's dire times, and maybe inspire what he calls a "white knight" to come to the rescue and buy the chain. That hasn't happened. Blame a failure to adapt to the flashier Chili's/Applebee's/TGI Friday's times or simply a change in consumers' tastes, but whatever the cause, it's pretty clear that Howard Johnson's restaurants will be no more in just a few years. "I've always been the type of person that hates to see pieces of Americana go," said Mann, who's 40 and manages a cable-TV station. The restaurant's general manager, Al Coonradt, said customers have come in to share fond memories of the place. "Most customers that talk to me are more inclined to talk about how suddenly this came upon us and took us by surprise," said Coonradt, who has been with the Springfield HoJo's for 17 years. The current owner of Howard Johnson's restaurants, Franchise Associates Inc. of Shelton, Conn., is separate from the company that runs Howard Johnson's lodging. Franchise Associates has a voice-mail system that won't transfer you to a human being or let you leave a message, which is why there's no response from them here.
A diaphanous company, a dearth of clams. It's a sad end for something so familiar.
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or