November 28, 2023
United States
Ice Cream Takes to the Road

In this excerpt from her new book, “Ice Cream: A Global History,” author Laura Weiss reminds us that ice cream was one of the first road foods.

By Laura Weiss

The automobile was sparking enormous changes in Americans’ ice cream eating habits. Dotting the roadways beginning in the 1930s, ice cream stands proliferated. Some of the earliest stands - many boasted sloping roofs angled suggestively in the direction of an adjacent highway - were mom-and-pop operations situated on secondary roads.

The idea was to seduce slow-moving cars to stop by for a cone or cup of ice cream. Little more than hulking cement billboards, mid-century ice cream stands boasted shapes and signage brazenly trumpeting their wares. There were stands in the shape of upside-down ice cream cones. Others were conceived of as igloos and castles. Nearly all were bedecked with gaudy, flashing neon signs. If travelling motorists weren’t already sold on the idea that an ice cream cone would offer a fun-filled break from the tedium of the road, then the stands’ flamboyant architecture loudly broadcasted that message. (In Louisiana, scores of former ice cream stands have been converted in recent years to drive-through daiquiri shops, perhaps the ultimate expression of roadside dining exuberance.)

Soft Ice Cream Creates a Stir

The stands were just the right type of retail outlet for the post-war ice cream-loving times. Partly aided by these roadside outfits, ice cream cone sales went through the roof. By 1953, 6 billion of the treats were sold in the US, according to industry figures.

To meet the escalating demand, a hundred cone companies poured an estimated 50 million lb (22.7 million kg) of flour and 3.5 million lb of sugar into cone-making machines. And it wasn’t just kids who were lapping up cones. Adults loved them, too. In fact, in a bid to attract adult customers, a total of 65 per cent of the cones produced in the early 1950s were of the flat-bottomed variety - said to be more appealing to grown-ups than the more common waffle cone.

With a seemingly insatiable demand emanating from baby boomers and their parents, new ice cream vendors entered the market. In the UK Mr Softee and Mr Whippy peddled soft ice cream from vans in English villages and towns, beginning in the late 1950s. In the US the demand for soft-serve ice cream soon eclipsed that of the regular, hard-packed variety. By 1950, Americans were lapping up five times as much soft ice cream as they had three years earlier, while hard ice cream consumption had slipped 16 per cent from its 1947 levels. By 1957 more than 12,000 drive-in stores were dotting the US roadways. And fans were digging into 150 million gallons (568 million litres) of the swirled soft confection annually.

Dairy Queen

It wasn’t long before regional and national chains in the US - Tastee Freez, Carvel, Kohr’s and Dairy Queen, to name a few - pushed aside many of the original mom and pops. One of the most successful of these new purveyors was Dairy Queen, founded in 1938. From the opening of the first shop in Kankakee, Illinois, the fledgling company - launched by the father and son team of J. F. and H. A. McCulloughs of Green River, Illinois - flourished. In 1946, sales of their soft serve - unlike frozen custard, it was made without eggs - totalled $75,000 according to company figures. By 1950 the company was raking in $35 million from its 1,400 outlets. By the mid-1950s the company was claiming 2,600 shops located throughout the US.

Franchising was the key to Dairy Queen’s growth. Starting in the late 1940s, the company had instituted a system in which store owners were granted a specific geographic territory in exchange for paying an upfront fee and royalties Today, Dairy Queen operates more than 5,900 restaurants in the United States, Canada and twenty foreign countries. (Texas claims boasting rights to the most Dairy Queens, with 600 outlets.) International expansion began in 1953. Dairy Queen now runs stores outside the US, in places like Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and India. Today, Dairy Queen is owned by multinational Berkshire Hathaway.

Howard Johnson and his 28 Flavours

In ‘The Oranging of America’, a 1976 short story by American writer Max Apple, a fictional Howard Johnson embarks on a road trip across America. Cruising US highways in a limousine fitted out with a back-seat ice cream freezer containing a selection of eighteen ice cream flavours, the restaurant magnate launches a quest to find new locales for his roadside eateries. ‘He raised his right arm and its shadow spread across the continent like a prophecy’, Apple wrote of his road-tripping restaurateur.

As it turned out, the aspirations of the imaginary Johnson didn’t differ substantially from those of the actual man. Howard Johnson introduced Americans to an expanded palette of ice cream flavours. But just as importantly, he cemented a trend that ice cream-stand owners had already begun to exploit - the marriage of ice cream-eating and automobile trips.

In 1925 Howard Dearing Johnson, then a young druggist with a soda fountain in Wollaston, Massachusetts, doubled the fat content in his ice cream; customers flocked to his store for the rich treat. Predicting that Americans were ready to expand beyond the traditional favourites of vanilla and chocolate, Johnson unveiled a line-up of 28 flavours - from maple walnut to banana. Soon he added lunch and snack foods, such as fried clams and hot dogs. An American roadside dining institution was born. Like the mom-and-pop ice cream-stand operators, Johnson figured out that Americans’ infatuation with the automobile, and the lifestyle it spawned, was the key to marketing his product.

So Johnson followed the Second World War veterans and their families to the suburbs that were springing up around the nation’s cities. There, amongst the split levels and ranch houses, the automobile was king. In fact, in the newly minted towns, residents were totally dependent on their cars for connecting with essential neighbourhood services - from grocery stores to dining establishments. So Johnson embarked on an expansion plan in which he situated his orange-roofed eateries in burgeoning suburban subdivisions. From Levittown, New York, to Kankakee, Illinois, Howard Johnson restaurants became familiar dining landmarks. Accommodating suburbanites’ automobiles was key to the business?s success. The Levittown restaurant was typical. It boasted 26,000 square feet (2,415 sq. m) of parking - an area that that dwarfed the size of the eatery itself.

By 1952 Johnson had served more than 200 million diners at his 355 stores. Investors - including Second World War general and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who became a partner in a Washington, DC HoJos, as the chain was affectionately called - clamoured to buy into the business. By the beginning of the next decade, the number of HoJos in the US had nearly doubled. And when a major highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, opened to traffic in 1940, Johnson was given the nod to put the roadway?s eateries in place. By 1952 there were twenty-one HoJos on the Pennsylvania artery alone, eleven positioned on the New Jersey Turnpike, and one on the Maine highway. One hundred million Americans a year were taking to US roads by the early 1960s - and Johnson was feeding a good number of them.

Soon Johnson’s dining empire was equated in the minds of many Americans with the concept of roadside dining. ‘In most states east of the Mississippi River, the term “Howard Johnson” has become synonymous with roadside restaurant’, the New York Times wrote in a September 1952 story chronicling the chain?s success. ‘[A]s long a automobiles continue to pour out of Detroit, Howard Johnson won?t worry too much: every car that rolls off the production line has built-in customers’, wrote the Chicago Defender in 1961, estimating that America?s roadside restaurants were pulling in $6 billion of business annually. Ice cream was HoJo’s biggest seller, accounting in 1955 for a quarter of all sales. And it seemed as if the HoJos formula would be easy to export to Europe. But when the company opened its first store in Amsterdam in the 1970s, customers spurned its products.

And trouble was brewing at home as well. In the 1960s charges of racism dogged the chain. Several outlets operating in southern states refused to serve African-Americans. In fact, HoJos became embroiled in controversy when in 1961 President John F. Kennedy was forced to issue a personal apology to a Sierra Leone diplomat who had been refused service at a Hagerstown, Maryland store. Soon, nagging cleanliness and food quality issues surfaced - and in a blow to the ice cream’s brand, customers complained that some HoJos outlets were carrying fewer than the vaunted 28 flavours. Perhaps the fatal blow was struck when the New Jersey Turnpike authority decided to terminate Howard Johnson’s roadside concession contract in 1973.

Today, almost no original Howard Johnson buildings remain; in 2005 the Times Square restaurant in New York was shuttered forever. A year later, La Mancha Group, LLCĀ  took control of the food and beverage rights, according to, a Howard Johnson fan site. Meanwhile HoJo devotees keep the flame alive through various Internet sites, hoping for a resurrection of the iconic roadside dining spots.

As for the restaurant magnate himself, Johnson always considered himself an ice cream man at heart. He was said to down a dish a day and to have kept a freezer full in his New York penthouse apartment. Yet despite his epic accomplishments - including the rainbow of 28 flavours - Johnson?s attempts to convince Americans to become more adventurous ice cream eaters fell short. At mid-century, fully half of US ice cream fans still preferred vanilla. In fact, Johnson appeared to have died a disappointed man, reported a New York Times obituary in 1972. Try as he might, the restaurant chieftain believed that in one key respect, he had failed mightily. ‘I spent my whole life developing scores of flavors,’ he lamented, ‘and yet most people still say, “I?ll take vanilla.’”

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