Vanishing Americana: Roadside Business Edition

Remember Woolworth’s? Amoco gas stations? How about the old Howard Johnson’s with the trademark weathervane and iconic orange roof? Take a drive down memory lane with this shortlist of once household brands and businesses now gone from the streetscape of American business.

Amoco

Amoco

Created in the merger of Standard Oil Company and American Oil Company in 1910, Amoco opened its first service station two years later in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Amoco was a leader in the lead-free gasoline movement in the 1920s, 50 years before a burgeoning environmental movement spurred legislation that eventually led to the universal elimination of leaded gas.

During World War II, American warplanes flew on Amoco gas. But it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the brand’s iconic torch and oval sign became a fixture on just about every street corner in America.

Amoco grew to become a multibillion-dollar company by the late 1990s and the largest natural gas producer in the United States. This led to some head scratching when, in 1998, the company announced it was merging with British oil giant, BP. Under the deal, Amoco services stations across America were rebranded under new signage featuring BP’s golden “buzzsaw” logo. BP mostly dissolved the use of “Amoco Fuels” in the U.S. market in 2008.

Sambo’s

Sambos

[source: wikipedia.com]

What do you do when the chosen name for your restaurant just happens to be the same as a 100-year-old derogatory racial slur for an excessively obedient and servile African-American servant? If the year was 1957 and your names were Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett, you just went with it.

According to the company’s version of history, the two partners never meant any harm when they decided to christen their venture with a mash-up of their own names; the fact that Sambo was also a name of a controversial 1899 children’s book, The Story of Little Black Sambo that featured black “pickaninny” stereotypes was, they insisted, just an unfortunate coincidence.

What was definitely not happenstance was the calculated move to transform the racial imagery in the book into a thematic experience for diners. And looking back on it now, the crazy thing is that it worked for almost 20 years. In 1979, the company that eventually bought the chain grew Sambo’s to include some 1,117 locations in 47 states.

But eventually, communities that had experienced race riots during the 1950s and 1960s had had enough. “Lawsuits were filed against the Sambo’s name; the NAACP got involved, too,” wrote Andrew Romano in his excellent Sambo’s retrospective for The Daily Beast. “In Rhode Island, the state’s Human Rights Commission decided that ‘the use of the name ‘Sambo’s’ had the effect of notifying black persons that they were unwelcome at Sambo’s restaurants because of their race’; the Urban League of Springfield, Massachusetts, insisted that the name ‘carrie[d] racial overtones despite what Sambo’s says.’”

Sambo’s eventually did try changing their name. But the public relations damage — combined with the fact that sit-down, coffee shop style breakfast restaurants were slowly losing out to the fast food restaurant anyway — proved the final nail in the coffin. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1981.
Howard Johnson’s

Howard Johnsons

[source: wikipedia.org]

Howard Johnson’s was once the country’s largest restaurant chain with over 1,000 U.S. and Canadian locations (and 500 motor lodges) during the 1960s and ’70s. In an era before drive-thru burgers and discount motels, the distinct orange roof and blue spire of Howard Johnson’s served as a beacon for tired and hungry road travelers looking for sensibly priced, quality lodging and good sit-down food.

Howard Johnson, the man, started his roadside empire with a small south Boston soda and ice cream shop in 1925. He is credited with pioneering the idea of franchising and also was successful in the 1930s in securing rights to serve travelers along the then newly constructed New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes.

Famous for its fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, Howard Johnson’s also had a line of frozen food. During the heydays of American road travel after WWII and well into the late 1960s, the company enjoyed huge profits from all its strategically placed highway locations. And then the oil embargo of the early 1970s happened.

Suddenly, fewer Americans could afford to take long trips and vacations. With fewer road travelers, Howard Johnson’s saw revenue plummet. At the same time the popularity of fast food restaurants, which were cheaper to operate and also more appealing to families with children, were also on the rise. At last count, there were only two originally styled Howard Johnson’s restaurants left in the country: one in Lake George, Ney York, and the other in Bangor, Maine.

F.W. Woolworth Company

Woolworths

[source: wikipedia.org]

The original five-and-dime store, Woolworth’s saw its first store open in Utica, New York, in 1878. Founder Frank Winfield Woolworth had a simple model for success: a then revolutionary idea that hinged on undercutting the prices of local merchants with fixed prices (usually 5- or 10-cents) on general, factory merchandise that customers could pursue and select themselves without the aid of a sales clerk.

Expanding its presence across North America and even overseas, Woolworth’s dominated the five-and-dime industry for decades after establishing an empire of roughly 3,000 stores. Downtown fixtures in every major American city, Woolworths were also the anchor stores in suburban shopping malls throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In 1979, on Woolworth’s 100-year-anniversary, the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the largest department chain store in the world.

Similar discount stores (namely K-Mart, Target and Wal-Mart) had been slowly chipping away at Woolworth’s market share since opening their first stores in 1962. It’s generally accepted that the supermarket grocery store, combined with a general decline in the quality of Woolworth’s merchandise and low-end feel of the shopping experience the modern stores offered, conspired to push the company to close all its U.S. locations in 1997.

Burger Chef

Burger Chef

Hard to believe that a burger chain so innovative that it could have unseated McDonald’s in the 1960s as America’s number one burger chain is now basically forgotten by anyone under the age of 40.

Founding brothers Frank and Donald Thomas patented the “flame broiler” in 1954 before opening their first Burger Chef location three years later in Indianapolis, Indiana. Flame-broiled burgers were just one of a number of creative innovations later copied by others in the industry. Burger Chef is credited with first coming up with the “value combo,” “fun meal” and self-service “works bar.”

General Mills purchased the Burger Chef chain in 1968, and by 1973 the franchise had expanded to over 1,000 locations across the U.S. In 1982, General Mills sold the company to the Canadian-owned Hardees chain, which stopped branding for Burger Chef. The last store to use the Burger Chef name closed in 1996.

Have a favorite long-lost roadside business that you’d like to add to the list? Take a moment to comment below or over at the HVA’s Facebook page.

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