Last of the Howard Johnson’s restaurants prepares to close in Springfield

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(Host) Vermont’s last Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, and one of the few left in the nation, will close this weekend. The Springfield restaurant has been around since the early 1960’s.

VPR’s Steve Zind stopped in for a visit.

(Zind) It’s 8 a.m. at the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant at Exit 7 on I-91. Once in a while, the clatter of dishes interrupts the soft drone of the Muzak that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere.

It’s pretty quiet for breakfast time.

(Al Coonradt) “Very quiet. I’ve noticed the attrition of business over the course of the last eight years, I would say.”

(Zind) Manager, Al Coonradt, sits in one of the booths. On the menu in front of him is the familiar Howard Johnson’s ‘Simple Simon and the Pie Man’ logo and the words, ‘Tastes as good as you remember.’

After this Sunday only memories will remain of this restaurant with its orange roof and white cupola. Ownership changes and increasing competition have taken their toll on the franchise started in 1925 by Howard Dearing Johnson. At one time there were nearly a thousand Howard Johnson Restaurants nationwide. Now only nine remain.

Waitress Cindy Stillwell says people are often surprised when they discover the Springfield restaurant.

(Stillwell) “And they’re so excited that they found a Howard Johnson’s, because there are so very few. Come in with cameras, taking pictures everywhere.”

(Zind) There are more serious fans, too. Walter Mann has a Web site called Mann says for people of a certain age, HoJo’s represents a link to the past.

(Mann) “They have memories of the fried clams and the ice cream and the macaroni and cheese and the clam chowder, without a doubt. But I think it’s the nostalgia. A lot of people still look for something from their past that gives them a good, warm feeling. And I think that’s what Howard Johnson’s did.”

(Zind) Manager Al Coonradt says a fellow called from Florida the other day. He plans to bring a group up to see the restaurant before it closes.

The youthful looking, soft spoken Coonradt has been manager for nearly eighteen years. He remembers the time writer Stephen King pulled off the highway to eat here. Actor Robert Vaughan was another customer. And a famous country singer whose name Coonradt can’t recall.

Coonradt first got into the restaurant business as a way to make money when he was an English major in college.

(Coonradt) “I’m saddened by the denouement of my career here at Howard Johnson’s. But personally, by the same token, I’m looking forward to expanding to a different field altogether.”

(Zind) He says one of the things he like most about his job is working with the young people who had summer jobs here. Even years later, they stop in to say hello.

Waitress Cindy Stillwell walks past the empty tables and booths carrying a coffee pot.

(Stillwell) “OK, what can I get for you?”

(Zind) Stillwell works with the effortless efficiency of someone who’s been waiting tables all her adult life.

(Stillwell) “…home fries and toast? Okay, white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel or an English muffin?”

(Zind) Stillwell says she’ll miss the customers.

(Stillwell) “I’m a people person. And I love customers, especially regulars. You get into a place, you stay there. You know, you have regulars come in. And we have a lot of regulars here. And they’re really sad.”

(Zind) Stillwell is waiting on a regular at table twelve. Don McGee’s been coming in for about seven years. McGee and Stillwell say Howard Johnson’s has been a part of life in Springfield.

(McGee) “A lot of people come in here to fall in love – graduation parties, birthday parties, celebrations, that kind of thing.”

(Stillwell) “Families that come here from all over the area – One family, anywhere from twenty to thirty of them, they show up here every year and do their Christmas. We have the Christmas tree up, they bring in all their presents.”

(Zind) Back in the kitchen, cook, Judy Adams, shares a laugh with the waitresses while she gets Don McGee’s order ready.

Adams is a compact woman with butterfly tattoos on her hand. She’s been here less than a year. Before this she managed a motel. Before that, she worked in a factory. She likes cooking in a restaurant and figures she’ll stick with it.

(Adams) “I have two other job offers cooking.”

(Zind) Adams says she’ll miss her Howard Johnson co-workers.

(Adams) “You say, ‘oh we’ll keep in touch’, but you don’t. So that’s the thing that’s really getting to me. Order up!”

(Zind) Manager, Al Coonradt, says he’s ready for a career change. He’s enrolled in a real estate appraisal school that’ll require him to spend one night a week in Montpelier in modest accommodations.

(Coonradt) “A tent. If it’s raining I’ll just sleep in the back of my Subaru.”

(Zind) On Sunday night, Howard Johnson employees will throw a party for their customers. Then they’ll lock the doors and go their separate ways.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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