HoJo Mojo

The last Howard Johnson's west of the Mississippi closes, leaving its patrons with no place to dine

Simple Simon and the Pieman, once a beacon to American motorists that promised good food and predictable hospitality, have lost their allure. The nursery-rhyme pair have faithfully served as the trademark of the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain for decades and may still be seen on the façade of the Kirkwood HoJo, a fixture on South Lindbergh Boulevard for 47 years.

However, the popular eatery that boasted 28 flavors is out of ice cream. It gets worse. The place is out of hotcakes, out of the chain's famous clams -- out of everything, in fact, including diners. The venerable restaurant closed October 21 without much fanfare.

It was the last remaining Howard Johnson's west of the Mississippi.

Within six months, the site, connected to a Best Western hotel, will host another chain restaurant, possibly a Chili's or a Denny's. The existing structure will likely be demolished. That's a crying shame because, according to HoJo historian Rich Kummerlowe of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Kirkwood HoJo is the last surviving example of the restaurant empire's most distinctive postwar architectural designs, created by architect Rufus Nims.

But Barry Williams, landscape designer and diehard HoJo enthusiast, doesn't need a historian to tell him the significance of what he's going to dearly miss.

"I'm one of these baby-boomers who hates to see one of the last vestiges of my youth vanishing," says Williams, 47. "I was dumbfounded to learn just this year that this once-ubiquitous empire of orange roofs is almost completely vanished, and it's happened without Americans' even being aware of it. It's unreal how fast something so mighty could just vanish."

In 1925, a 28-year-old salesman named Howard D. Johnson bought a patent-medicine store and soda fountain in a Boston suburb.

From the first franchise HoJos in Cape Cod to the latest one in Puerto Rico, the chain spread its tendrils along the highways and byways of the land until the name "Howard Johnson" was as familiar as "George Washington" and the chain's deep-fried clam strips, a signature dish culled from the company's own clambeds off Ipswich, Massachusetts, became a treat worth driving for.

"Johnson elevated roadside dining from a chancy, often disagreeable experience to something that people eagerly anticipated," says another HoJo historian/scholar, Philip Langdon.

The chain mushroomed over the next 30 years and boasted 1,000 locations by the 1960s. But then the tide turned. The franchise beast that Howard D. Johnson had unleashed was actually eating its own tail. McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the like were siphoning off customers. By the close of the '70s, the chain still had 867 locations, but over the ensuing twenty years, the landmarks died slow and painful deaths. With the shuttering of the Kirkwood HoJo, the chain is now down to eleven in the entire country.

Two hours after the last customer walked out the door forever, David Reed is busy moving the chairs from the back dining room to the hallway joining the hotel to the restaurant. Reed, a maintenance worker, has them lined up neatly in rows, looking smart for the prospective buyers who are soon to arrive. The owners, Mike and Kim Van Stavern of Farmington, are hoping to sell off everything that isn't nailed down -- furniture, fixtures, equipment. There are even condiments in bulk containers sitting in plain view, impulsively priced for last-minute sale. A tub of Durkee's Famous Sauce is going for a mere three dollars.

The interior is dim and silent, a woeful contrast to what on any other day would be a bustling lunch hour. On a back wall, behind the thirteen-stool, horseshoe-shaped dining counter, is a sign printed in large cursive letters: "The World of 28 Flavors," although restaurant manager Buddy Fresta says that in recent years, the number had dwindled to just eighteen. Worse, the ice cream was not even HoJo's own but a competitor's.

Anyone under 50 likely bypassed HoJo, instead flocking to TGI Friday's and Applebee's for their Rolling Rock and nachos.

"The younger generation never really had that Howard Johnson's thing," says Reed.

No matter. Seniors alone filled the joint up. The back dining room, officially dubbed the "Charlie Shaw Room" in homage to the celebrated criminal-defense lawyer, was the spot for Shaw and his cronies.

"Some of them, like Shaw, were World War II vets and independent pilots who flew out of the old Weiss Airport," recalls Fresta. "They would come in and have breakfast every morning and solve the problems of the world."

After Shaw died last year, the breakfast club went on, says Fresta, but just before HoJo closed for good, the lawyer's pals asked for the "Shaw Room" plaque that hung above the entrance.

Since August, when the Van Staverns scaled hours back to breakfast and lunch only, Fresta has worked to find jobs for some of the longtime staff. Although some dishwashers and waitresses may move on to similar positions at a Grone Cafeteria, Fresta himself is out of work.

Meanwhile, regular diners such as Larry Asher, Ollie Schweizer and Larry Cerutti have become displaced persons, wandering about in the early-morning hours searching for a breakfast as good as the one they knew. But for many who frequented HoJo, the food, though tasty and affordable, was just an excuse for the comfort of company. When a longstanding meeting place closes, a melancholy ripple spreads throughout the community. It happened with the closing of the beloved Parkmoor in 2000 and also with Irv's Good Food in 1998.

Williams believes the Van Staverns never gave the restaurant a chance.

"It's true," says Williams, "folks didn't patronize the place enough -- I'm one of them. But I do think that if the new owners had really wanted to, they could have made it succeed. That restaurant is not even listed in the White Pages. It's in the Yellow Pages under 'Restaurants,' buried among thousands of other entries. And why are there no billboards on I-44? There are thousands of hungry truckers and families driving past that interchange every day, and they don't know about that restaurant. These people didn't care to see that restaurant succeed. They didn't give a damn."

Williams is trying to salvage the landmark.

"I'm presently in discussions with Kirkwood city planners and local developers about the idea of relocating the building, intact, to a new site in Kirkwood and continuing it as a Howard Johnson's," he says. "It's a long shot, I know, but worth pursuing."

Meanwhile, Asher, owner of Asher Tire on South Lindbergh across from HoJo, is busy taking the turbocharger off his tow truck. Asher was a regular at the Kirkwood HoJo -- had breakfast there every day for seven or eight years. This particular morning was his last meal there, and he was the last customer.

"They closed it up this morning," he says, torquing a stubborn bolt. "There were a lot of people trying to get in, but they couldn't because they locked the doors at 11 o'clock sharp. I'm sorry to see it happen. I liked their coffee. You know, you get used to one thing, you don't like to change." He triumphs over the bolt, pops his head up out of the engine. "Yeah, plenty of good memories of that place. I made a lot of friends there, conducted business there. Well, they say all good things come to an end -- that's the end of that, I guess."