Twilight for a roadside icon…and the man who's keeping the light alive
Ronald Butler is a man on a mission. He's just spied something wrong with the salad bar — his salad bar — at the Lake Placid (N.Y.) Howard Johnson's restaurant. The items in the buffet table haven't been changed recently enough for a man who's been ensuring freshness in his beloved eatery since 1956. Yet on this particular day, Howard Johnson's is busy as usual, and there aren't any members of the waitstaff available to replenish the supplies. So the longtime restaurant co-owner does what he does on so many days: dons some plastic gloves, rolls up his sleeves, grabs a gigantic vat of lettuce and goes to work. Before long, every tray in the salad bar has been refilled, every item from applesauce to water chestnuts fresh as fresh can be. Finally, Butler leans back from the long, food-laden table and smiles. Mission accomplished.
Not that there was ever any doubt. Those who know the proud restaurateur know that nothing gets between Butler and his high culinary standards. For over fifty years, Butler and his wife, co-owner Jeannie, have kept Howard Johnson's alive and well at 2099 Saranac Avenue, weathering storms of franchise-wide adversity that have left the Lake Placid HoJo's as one of just two operating Howard Johnson's restaurants in the world. While hundreds of members of this once-vibrant family dining franchise have fallen, Butler's business continues to stand proud — and busy — in the Adirondack village. After five decades of victory, a little salad's hardly going to get in his way.
"If any of us in this place didn't like work, we'd have been out of business long ago."
"I love this business," Butler says. "I love what I do and I've never minded doing it. Every day, there's a new challenge to owning a restaurant." He laughs. "If any of us in this place didn't like work, we'd have been out of business long ago."
Long ago, Butler had no plans of even being in business. Growing up in Troy, N.Y., he enjoyed eating in restaurants and began working as a waiter at the age of fourteen, but never even though about owning his own establishment. "Looking back, I suppose it's something I should have thought about," Butler reflects. "I liked the business, and had a pretty good idea what it was about, but food service was never something that crossed my mind."
Instead, Butler signed up for a different kind of service: the U.S. Army. Stationed in Germany, he served his country during the Korean War until his honorable discharge in 1954. He returned home on Labor Day, unsure of his next step and searching for a foothold.
"I knew I wanted to go to college," Butler explains, "and I got it into my head that I wanted to go to Cornell." He chuckles. "But when I sat down with a guidance councilor, he told me my grades weren't good enough. He did tell me that I could probably get into Paul Smith's College (located near Lake Placid), and that I should look up there."
So that Saturday, Butler's father drove him to Paul Smith's, where he met with admissions officers about a course of study. After conversing for a couple of hours, college officials told Butler he could report for class the following Monday. His major: Hotel and Restaurant Management.
"Being told to check out Paul Smith's was some of the best advice I've ever received," Butler says. "That program finally showed me the direction I wanted to go in."
During his freshman year, Butler met a fellow student named Jeannie. The following summer, they were married. Suddenly, Butler remembers, he felt an overwhelming need to get a job. restaurants and food companies didn't come recruiting at schools in those days, so Butler struck out on his own.
He didn't go far before striking gold. In nearby Lake Placid, Butler became acquainted with Frances and Louise Brewster, wealthy sisters and original owners of the Adirondacks' first Howard Johnson's restaurant, franchised by the chain's founder at a 1955 yacht party in Palm Beach. The sisters were making plans to open the restaurant the following summer, and were looking for an assistant manager. After a brief telephone interview with Louise, Butler learned the job was his.
"I was kind of surprised, to be honest with you," Butler recalls of that moment. "I thought I had a good chance at the job, but I never expected to be told quite so soon."
On May 17, 1956, the Brewster sisters invited the first customers into their new eatery. From the beginning, the establishment was the talk of the town. As the restaurant's success became apparent, the Butlers remained in Lake Placid, and Ronald remained at Howard Johnson's. In any given moment, he recalls, he could be assigned any role from cook to dishwasher, giving Butler constant new insights into a realm where he felt more at home with each passing week. "I began to realize that I really liked this line of work," Butler says, "and decided I wanted a restaurant of my own."
"Finally, I realized that I wanted to be that new owner."
In 1958, Butler got his chance. That January, when Whiteface Mountain first opened its slopes for skiers, the Brewster sisters decided to keep Howard Johnson's open through the winter months. Yet when the winter tourism boom was not as great as they hoped, Frances and Louise began looking to sell. Butler wasn't happy. He liked the two sisters, and admired the way they ran their restaurant. What, he wondered, would a new owner bring?
"I kept fretting about working for a new owner," Butler says. "Finally, I realized that I wanted to be that new owner."
The only question, Butler knew, would be money. He and Jeannie pooled their resources, but only came up with $10,000, well below the Brewsters' asking price. Yet when Butler made his offer, the sisters changed their tune. Knowing how desperately Butler wanted to own the restaurant, Frances and Louise decided to take the ten grand as a down payment, allowing the Butlers to pay off the remaining sum through a monthly installment plan. "They were more than generous,” Butler says, smiling at the memory, “and my wife and I were more than surprised."
On September 1, 1958, Louise and Frances Brewster officially signed their Lake Placid establishment over to its new owners, a day Butler refers to as "exciting and terrifying at the same time." As the years went by, business boomed, despite the ever-growing presence of new restaurants in Lake Placid. Butler recalls "maybe fifteen" other restaurants in the village in 1958; today, he lists over seventy eating establishments within the town limits. Still, customers kept coming back to HoJo's, keeping the Butlers and their growing staff hopping with orders of frankfurters, fried clams and, of course, the franchise's famous ice cream flavors.
By 1967, the Butlers had completed their monthly payments to the Brewsters. Business had been so good that the owners had added two additional rooms to their restaurant, bringing their seating capacity up to 210. Thirteen years later, when Lake Placid was chosen as the site of the Winter Olympic Games, they needed every seat. The Butlers kept Howard Johnson's open twenty-four hours a day during the Games, serving distinguished guests from Olympic athletes (including Herb Brooks and the "Miracle On Ice" USA hockey team) to the entire ABC television crew. "What a winter that was," Butler says, who calls the Olympics "the best thing to happen to Lake Placid." "Naturally, when 1981 rolled around, there was a bit of post-Olympic letdown."
Still, Butler acknowledges, customers were still streaming in. In fact, it seemed like nothing could stop the popularity of Howard Johnson's…except the franchise itself. In the mid-1980s, more than 1,100 HoJo's franchises existed in the United States. After the Howard Johnson's company sold their naming rights to Marriott in 1985, however, the restaurants began consolidating into other chains or simply closing their doors at an alarming rate. Within a year, only 141 independently owned Howard Johnson's eateries remained in business.
"This was the highlight of my business career."
Before long, these independent operators began feeling pressure to sell their restaurants to the corporate system. Many did. Yet Butler steadfastly refused to give in, traveling across the country with a legal team embroiled in a fight for independence. "Atlanta, New York, D.C., Miami — I was traveling to a new place every week," Butler says. "Our employees did a terrific job keeping the place running while I was gone. This was more of a legal fight than I ever wanted to get involved with, but it was something I believed in, and I was not going to back down." He pauses, grinning slightly at the memory. "This was the highlight of my business career."
The fight ended in victory, with Butler and the few remaining Howard Johnson's owners remaining independent of outside corporate owners. As the years went by, though, more and more of these businesses could not pass the test of time, succumbing to the success of new family dining chains. Today, only two places in the world — Bangor, Maine, and Lake Placid — can boast an original HoJo's restaurant in their town.
"I'm proud to be one of the last remaining Howard Johnson's," Butler says. "But I never intended for this place to be a collector's item. I don't care if we become the last one in the country — we'll still work for the high standards this franchise always had."
As a new year begins, Ronald and Jeannie Butler are still doing the same thing they did fifty-one years ago. They still make "the classics" — roast turkey, fried clams, frankfurters in buns toasted on both sides. They still serve from 6:15 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day of the week. And they still, as Butler frequently points out, serve in the same family-friendly style Howard Johnson's has always been known for. Yet this year comes with a new note of hope for their franchise, one Butler hopes will lead to better days ahead. In January 2006, a New York marketing outfit called The LaMancha Group acquired the rights to all Howard Johnson's products, planning to revitalize the chain for American consumers. In coming years, Butler says, the group is planning on bringing back the original HoJo's ice cream and coffee, and hopes eventually to re-open Howard Johnson's restaurants in new locations across the USA.
"When I first heard of this group, I thought of that song from the musical Man of LaManch, 'The Impossible Dream,'" Butler says. "Could Howard Johnson's make comeback? It's a stretch, but not impossible, and I'd sure like to see it. I'll do whatever I can to make it work." Somehow, with the support of Ronald Butler and the surviving and thriving Lake Placid Howard Johnson's, one can't help but think this "Impossible Dream" might well be mission possible.
A Dream Come True?
While Ronald Butler's Lake Placid Howard Johnson's remains one of two remaining HoJo's restaurants in America, a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon for the currently moribund franchise.
In 2005, all the rights to "La Mancha Group LLC, " an business organization out of New York City that prides itself on reviving struggling business entities to their past glories. According to Butler, the La Mancha Group hopes to revive Howard Johnson's restaurants and make them as successful and profitable as they once were. “The Impossible Dream”, as the La Mancha logo indicates, can now be dreamed by HoJo's fanatics from coast-to-coast.
La Mancha plans on maintaining various Howard Johnson's products in supermarkets, looking to bring back the brand-name recognition that once accompanied the popular HoJo's coffee and ice cream. Sometime this year, the group is looking to open a new Howard Johnson's restaurant, although plans of this nature are still very tentative at this point.
David Kushner, director of the La Mancha Group, has already stated in various interviews that he does not want to bring back Howard Johnson's restaurants only to serve nostalgia. The generation that remembers youthful outings to dine on frankfurters with toasted buns or fried clam baskets or, of course, making the difficult choice to select just one out of those 28 flavors of ice cream is only a portion of the audience Kushner wants to reach. His ultimate goal, according to Butler, is to make Howard Johnson's a recognizable and respected brand for the new era as well as the old, to have today's children and their children's children look forward to a home-cooked meal at HoJo's as much as their parents once did.
Butler is quick to caution that this plan is still in its natal stages. Yet if La Mancha's “impossible dream” does indeed become true, Howard Johnson's fans everywhere can likely start dreaming of that once-beloved orange-roofed franchise opening by a roadside near you.
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