Friday, October 5, 2012

Seeking Fearless Fido: missing Howard Johnson on the Turnpike

You might have noticed that in virtually every Turnpike service area, there's a smaller building next to the main building. The smaller is usually closed, even if it has signage for a Carvel or a TCBY. It leads one to wonder: if the structure is never open and there's no business there, why does it exist to begin with?

One of the old Howard Johnson's Turnpike snack bars,
circa 2000. Note the stylized signage on top.
Photo courtesy www.highwayhost.org .
To learn why, you'd have to go back to the early days of the Turnpike, when the service areas were conceived. Today's stops have a variety of branded food establishments, but until the early 1970s, there was just one: Howard Johnson's. In fact, the old purveyor of ice cream and clam strips had the lock on long-distance road food distribution in the state, holding concessions for both the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway restaurants. They'd mastered the art of serving hungry travelers and also operated restaurants on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other states' roads. From what I've been able to gather (and dusting off my faint memories), HoJo's Turnpike establishments were largely cafeteria style, allowing them to serve large numbers of people efficiently while maintaining some semblance of being a restaurant with quality standards.

Travelers on the Turnpike could also find comfort in the consistent food options up and down the road. Knowing you'll have a reliable choice means there's one less decision you have to make in a potentially stressful situation. I'm living proof: the only item I can recall eating at HoJo's is the hot dog in a distinctive New England-style bun, served in a cardboard sleeve branded with the Howard Johnson's logo. The kids menu always had it listed as the Fearless Fido, french fries and HoJo Cola included in the meal. It was my instant choice.

While the service in the sit-down area might have been quick, a percentage of travelers just wanted to grab their food and go. Maybe they were running late, or perhaps they had cranky kids who'd be a hassle to wrestle out of the car and into a cafeteria. That's where those little Turnpike buildings come in. Howard Johnson's operated them as snack bars where customers could order from a limited menu of easily-transportable foods and quickly get back to their cars and the road. Again, you knew what was on the menu (as your kids probably did, too), so there was very little to do but order, pay and run.

It was a good system, but apparently someone felt a need for change. Howard Johnson's lost the Turnpike and Parkway concessions in 1973, perhaps due to the internal issues that ultimately led to the chain's demise.  The snack bar buildings were closed when the new concessionaire took over, and to many, the transition marked the decline of service area fare. Burger King and Pizza Hut may be reasonable enough offerings, but the Turnpike, at least, has lost some of the reliability and uniformity it once prided itself on. How's a traveler supposed to manage his or her appetite? I've got enough on my mind without having to remember what fast foods are going to be available at the next service area.

The next time you stop at a Turnpike rest area, check out the Snack Bar building -- it won't be hard to identify. Let me know if it's open, and, if so, what they're selling. Oh, and if you smell hot dogs, do let me know!

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