Originally published by the Cape Cod Chronicle, April 13. 2018
April is here and the frst group of clam shacks, ice cream shops, and other summer food places are starting to open. Yay! Maybe warm weather will follow.
The names and locations of summer restaurants have always been changing. One of the earliest of these in Orleans is Howard Johnson's.
Howard Johnson's, that's not an Orleans thing you say? I know, I grew up in Hartford and we always went to HoJos after school concerts and when I first moved to Washington DC, the HoJos at the Watergate was one of the few places in town open 24 hours. But the restaurant that was once familiar in many towns across the country, over a thousand at its peak as well as motels, got its start as a national presence here in Orleans.
In 1925, Howard Johnson bought a corner pharmacy in Qunicy and quickly saw that the soda counter part of the operation was bringing in the most money, He experimented with ice cream recipes, finally finding one that was so successful, in 1929 he opened a standalone restaurant featuring New England favorites like fried clam strips, chicken pot pie, and baked beans. He saw it as the beginning of an empire.
The Great Depression seemed to slow down his plan. Until he came up with a novel idea. His friend Reginald “Skipper” Sprague had family property near Town Cove in Orleans at the junction of Routes 28 and 6A which he was looking to develop. Knowing the food Johnson served was good and the restaurant had a good reputation, Sprague offered to take on the financial risk. He paid his father $1 for the land, built the building according to plans provided by Johnson- it was one of the first buildings built with the chain's iconic orange roof, cupola, and weather vane. Sprague also paid Johnson for the recipes or food, business name, and other branding. A crew of experienced staff came down from Quincy to train the local staff. A person who knew the Quincy location could visit in Orleans and not notice differences. It was the first restaurant franchise in American history!
And it was a success. Although it opened in May 1935 with the Depression still going strong, within two years, Sprague had realized his original investment of $17,000 (over $250,000 in 2018). The summer of 1935 they served over 700 meals a day, not counting ice cream orders. There was a 50 cent special that had juice, a soup, our choices for your entree, hot rolls, desert, coffee, milk or tea. The lobster dinner was $1.50.
Waitresses made $80 a week. Tips weren’t very high as the highest menu item was only $3.50. Plus the 20% tipping tradition had not begun yet and the norm was to leave a quarter regardless of party size and orders. Except for Clayton Mayo and the Kellys from Wellfleet who always left a dollar (there's a lesson- tip well and 50 years later you will be remembered in an oral history!). Waitresses would memorize the list of 27 ice cream flavors and on quiet days would sit behind the counter tasting them. It was a popular job for local housewives, but also for college students and many marriages emerged among those staff members. . Working at the Orleans Howard Johnson's was like joining a family.
Sprague died in 1972 and the restaurant closed in 1979. It became Adam's Rib and then the Fog Cutter and is now Lost Dog Pub, but you can still see the shape of a Howard Johnson's building when you look at it. And there's still lots of places in the area for ice cream!
All photos from OHS collection