Comments from a Former Hojo Employee

I saw the webpage about the HoJo oasis restaurants and thought I'd share some experience and info on the subject...

I worked for Howard Johnson Company's Automatic Merchandising (vending machine) Division from August of 1978 until HoJo lost the tollroad contract in 1983 and 1984. (Actually they did not lose it but it was divided three ways and no longer worthwhile for them to keep the vending division going so I transferred to another state.) I started working for HoJo as a vending machine routeman, filling and cleaning vending machines. Later I was promoted to maintenance, doing repairs on the equipment, and finally to assistant district manager. I even met the girl who I would later marry, working behind the cash register at the HoJo restaurant at Ohare Oasis.

My years working with HoJo on the tollroad were terrific. My co-workers and I all got along great together; we were all pals, we sometimes saw each other outside of work too. As hard as we worked, we had even more fun, every single day. It was the kind of place that when you took a week of vacation, for the first few mornings you still came in to help the other guys load up the truck, because otherwise you wouldn't see them for a whole week and hey, they were your buddies. You didn't want to not see them, and loading the truck was fun (everything was fun) anyhow. We threw the product - cases of pop, boxes of candy, whatever - at each other like as if to kill but we all got darned good at catching it too.

Everyone should have a job that’s that much fun, and work with such a great bunch of people, at least once in life. I sure did.

For most of the years they were on the tollroad, HoJo had a 'location attendant' to service the vending machines at Lake Forest, Hinsdale, and Belvedere Oasis locations because those places were located at a great distance from the main vending office, which was in the basement of the Ohare Oasis. Also, they did a huge amount of business and required servicing every day but Tuesday and Thursday, so it was impractical to service them from a truck. Product for the machines was delivered to a stockroom at each of those oasis restaurant basements. Most of the oasis locations had thirty two vending machines. Each of the two gas stations had two can pop machines, three snack machines, a cigarette machine, a 6oz can juice machine, and a coffee machine. Each side of the restaurant had two can pop machines, four snack machines, a chip machine, and a cigarette machine. The DeKalb oasis was one exception; it had one gas station and no 'sides' to the restaurant so it had fewer machines; the Abe Lincoln oasis near Indiana was also an excpetion in that it did not have vending machines in the gas stations.

The locations that did not have an on-site attendant were serviced by a sizeable truck, by our operation which was based at Ohare Oasis. Two routemen worked on the truck except in summer we usually had a third person to help during the busy travel season. We generally worked Monday and Tuesday, were off Wednesday, worked Thursday, Friday, and a somewhat short day on Saturday. So, we got a day off in the middle of the week and only worked a shortened day on Saturday. It was still nearly as good as a regular weekend. We generally serviced DesPlaines Oasis and Ohare Oasis on the same days, and the DeKalb and Abe Lincoln locations on the other days.

There were some changes in HoJo vending during the years I worked for them on the tollroad. When I started, there was a very heavy concentration of HoJo branded product in the vending machines. We sold Howard Johnson's canned pop, Howard Johnson's gum and mints, Howard Johnson's bagged candy, Howard Johnson's candy bars. In fact we could not sell any candy bars that in any way competed with the HoJo items! Eventually that changed; we changed to White Rock and then to CocaCola canned pop, BeechNut mints, Wrigley's gum, and a full lineup of regular brand candy. And, slowly the gas stations were turned over to private leaseholders who then were free to do their own vending (and keep the profits) so we saw our business base shrink starting in '82 or = so.

Great as it was, working at HoJo's vending division wasn't completely fun and games. We were more than up to the heavy physical work but no matter what shape =you're in, when you're in a truck that has just about no heat, you're gonna get cold when it's below zero out! And boy that did happen, plenty of times. And we found ourselves in some really bad weather that included such heavy snow the one hour drive to DeKalb oasis took three hours. (That was on New Year's Eve 1978.) But all the times we spent fighting the winter weather were compensated by the beautiful spring days we spent cruising down the tollroad, truck doors open, sun shining... days like that were just perfect and we had plenty of them too.

There were a few little peeves to the job, nothing serious but I'll mention them. A) People asking you to sell them $5 worth of nickels for the tollroad or phones. B) People who parked blocking the restaurant doors so we couldn't get our stuff in easily. C) Our truck had nearly zero heat! The windows frosted over and we froze, especially our feet... we wore sneakers year round for mobility and in the cold they don't do well for warmth. D) One of my biggest pet peeves was the people who would walk up to the snack machines, see the very clearly labeled bags of HoJo SALT-water taffy, and say "Oh look, they've got SWEET WATER TAFFY..." I could mouth the words right along with them. I don't know why but they just couldn't bring themselves to say "salt water taffy."

Without going into too much detail, I do want to say that not only did we have a great time working for HoJo but as employees we were well paid and very well treated. I had been with HoJo for over six years when our contracts were finally expired on the tollroad. I had been told that there would be a new, smaller vending division which would take care of cigarette machines and video games at HoJo affiliated motor lodges and restaurants in the area, and that I would be one of the few employees it would have... but, that idea vanished when the time approached. Instead I was offered a position at another district. Having spent six years at the best job I'd ever had, I couldn't imagine leaving the company just because they were closing up shop in Illinois, so I accepted a transfer to another district. There were good and bad points to that new place but it was never, ever the same as it was on the tollroad.

I'd like to say a few things about the restaurants themselves. To look at them now, and the way they used to be, is a very clear and sad difference. Back when the oasis restaurants were built they were nicer places. The styling was modern and classy, the restaurants were dignified but still friendly. As time has gone by, fast food became the preferred choice of the public. I can understand that; however I am sorry to see the way the oasis restaurants have been changed around. They've gotten cluttered and messy and are laid out like carnival midways; large signs block the windows facing the tollroads and some of the windows have been blacked out. The appearance was changed just for the sake of making it different when HoJo turned the tollroad over to fast food in '83 and '84. Different doesn't always mean better. A look at the pictures on Ron's site will make it obvious that once upon a time, those oasis restaurants were fine-looking places, not the lowest-common-denominator junkshops they have become.

Most people don't know anything much about the Oasis restaurant buildings so I'll share just a small amount of esoterica. At least one side of the original oasis buildings (Ohare, DesPlaines, Lake Forest, Hinsdale, Belvedere) has a basement with storage rooms, a couple of freight elevators, a large boiler room, and a long hallway along which are some larger restrooms and even a room with showers. I never was curious enough about those places when I worked for HoJo on the tollroad but now I have begun to wonder what public restrooms and showers were installed for, in the basement of the oasis buildings. Those areas were basically deserted when I worked for HoJo and what they were installed for remains a puzzle to me. Also, in the basement of each of those buildings was an office with a large glass window all down its length, perhaps 25 feet or so. At Ohare our vending office was located in that room; at the other oasis locations that room was empty or used for storage. As with the restrooms and showers, I wonder what the original purpose was? Clearly they were not being used for anything like they had been planned for when the restaurants were built.

I guess I'll finish this little essay now with a dedication: to Jerry, Bob, Andy, Sue, Dave, Gary, Darrell, Dewey, Paul, Ed, Trudy... some of the people I worked with and had a lot of fun with 'back when'. And thanks to Ron, for putting up a site devoted to the oasis restaurants I was privileged to work for.