The man behind the Lake George Ho Jo’s

The following newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Record, Troy, NY, on August 2, 1981.

Business Editor

CLIFTON PARK – Carl DeSantis paid $2,500 to obtain his first restaurant franchise in Lake George, at a time when only rooming hotels and cabins dotted the village.

Today, 28 years later, his Howard Johnson’s is still flourishing along with the other six restaurant franchises he owns, including the Howard Johnson’s in Clifton Park and the Red Coach Grill outside of Lake George. He also owns two non-franchised restaurants – the Copper Kettle in Glens Falls and Mohawk Station in Mohawk, near Herkimer .

Carl DeSantis

Carl DeSantis in 1981.
(Photo by Tom Killips, The Record)

DeSantis’ success is unusual when one considers that the nationwide failure rate for new restaurants is 75 percent. But, he said his establishments have survived and flourished mostly because of the training he received when he first started out with Howard Johnson’s in 1953.

It was his father who first became interested in the restaurant chain. He had become familiar with them in New Jersey, where he lived before bringing his family to Lake George. “My father used to remark from time to time that what we need in Lake George is a Howard Johnson’s,” said DeSantis, during a recent interview at his Clifton Park restaurant.

Either he or his father (he doesn’t remember which) wrote a letter to Howard Johnson’s headquarter office to suggest a Lake George location. The company sent a representative to meet with DeSantis’ father and told him that the area could support a Howard Johnson’s but that the company would not operate it. They offered him a franchise but he was operating a cabin court in Lake George and was not interested in running a restaurant.

DeSantis looked over the information that the company sent to his father and found it so interesting that he decided to use it in a term paper he was writing about how to start a business. He was attending Skidmore College on a part-time basis, having been admitted to the then all-female school because he was a veteran. He had also been working at various jobs doing “just about anything,” he says, “to support myself in the lifestyle to which I wanted to be accustomed.”

“I was bored by college,” he recalls. “I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. I was 24 or 25 and had met my wife. . . I wasn’t a good student and didn’t feel I was learning anything that would improve my lot in life.”

The information on the Howard Johnson’s franchise sparked his interest. “It looked so profitable that I convinced my father to let me do it,” he said. His father co-signed on a loan and donated land he owned, adjacent to the cabin court, for the restaurant.

He asked the company for training and was sent to Yonkers for three months to work in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant there without pay.

“When I left Yonkers there wasn’t anything I didn’t know about the restaurant business,” said DeSantis, “and after my second day of being open I realized I didn’t know anything.”

Lake George Ho Jo's

The Lake George Howard Johnson’s (1950s vintage postcard)

Despite “making every mistake in the book” DeSantis said his franchise was profitable the first summer it was open.

He joined a nationwide organization, comprised of the owners of Howard Johnson restaurant franchises, and heard other success stories. “After about four years, I began to realize I didn’t want to run one restaurant,” he said. “It was too confining.”

It was about 1956 and plans for the Northway were being drawn up. After meeting with the state department of transportation, DeSantis paid $3,500 to purchase his second Howard Johnson’s franchise and opened a restaurant at exit 17. “I picked exit 17 because it was a cloverleaf and was designed to handle the bulk of the traffic into the Glens Falls,” he said. “But it didn’t turn out that way. Everybody got off at exit 19 instead.”

Not easily discouraged, DeSantis asked Howard Johnson’s for another franchise at exit 19. At the time, the company was not granting any more franchises and his request was at first refused. But he insisted and got his way. By then, he had also obtained another franchise in Oswego at a time when the Syracuse area was booming.

After that, DeSantis bought his fifth Howard Johnson’s in Herkimer for $7,500. Then, he set his sights on another franchise offered by the Howard Johnson Co. – the Red Coach Grill. “The first time I saw one was in 1953 in New England and I was bound and determined that if they ever franchised them I’d have a Red Coach Grill.”

In 1969, he got his wish and became the second Red Coach franchisee in the country. He paid $30,000 for the franchise and took over a restaurant owned by Charles Wood, who operated Storytown (now Great Escape) across the road from it. The large rustic structure, which is a familiar sight to north-bound Northway motorists, had also been known as Alphonso’s.

DeSantis’s next move was to open a Howard Johnson’s in Clifton Park, a community he had been observing for some time. That franchise cost $25,000.

After the Clifton Park purchase, he decided to turn away from franchising and venture out on his own. “By this stage of the game most of the good locations had been acquired,” he explained. “Plus, we had gotten so big that our overhead required a high volume location.”

So, DeSantis took a trip to Maine, purchased a 40-foot caboose and a 44-foot boxcar and had them delivered to Herkimer, where he had them converted to a restaurant two years ago. He named it Mohawk Station and decorated it with railroad memorabilia, modeling it after the Victoria Station chain restaurants. It was so successful that DeSantis enlarged it a year after it opened.

This year, he purchased the Copper Kettle restaurant in Glens Falls, which is also visible from the Northway. “We’ve been open a month now and the sales have gone way up,” said DeSantis, who plans eventually to renovate the restaurant to make its kitchen and bar more efficient. (A few years after this article appeared, this restaurant was totally remodeled and renamed Carl R’s Cafe, presumably after its owner.)

He wants to open more restaurants, possibly one in Saratoga Springs and another in the Johnstown-Gloversville area. He’s also been thinking of buying and converting a railroad station, which is on the Remsen to Lake Placid railroad line. A banquet facility addition to the Clifton Park Howard Johnson’s is also planned.

Lake George Ho Jo's

The Lake George Howard Johnson’s in 2005
(Photo by Glenn Wells, all rights reserved)

The closer a restaurant is to the home base the easier it is to maintain quality, according to DeSantis, who personally travels to all of his restaurants at least once a month. He also works out of the main office for DeSantis Enterprises Inc. on Aviation Road in Glens Falls.

When he’s not working, he is busy with a myriad of organizations. He has been active in civic affairs since he was in his early 30s and is a former Lake George councilman. He is president of the New York State Restaurant Association, served on the Lake George Opera board of directors, chaired boy scout fund raising drives, spent nine years on the vestry of St. James Episcopal Church in Lake George and has been house chairman of the Lake George Club for the past three years.

He and his wife live in a 120-year-old brick farm house, situated on 16 acres of land outside of Lake George. DeSantis also spends time on his 250-foot cabin cruiser and enjoys downhill and cross-country skiing, as well as hiking in the Adirondacks.

But, the thing he most likes to do is work. “I don’t enjoy vacations and my wife says it’s because I don’t know how to relax. If I wasn’t married I’d probably work all of the time because that’s what I enjoy most. . . I think my father instilled the work ethic in me. He came here as an immigrant from Italy. He went to fourth grade and got where he did through hard work.

“I don’t consider myself a smashing success because I didn’t start this by myself. If there is anything I have it’s the ability to pick good people.” DeSantis also keeps a constant eye on expenses and profit and believes this is very important.

But there is another reason for the success of his restaurants, said DeSantis. “Howard Johnson Sr. used to say there are three big ingredients to buying a successful restaurant – location, location, location.”

The DeSantis empire in 1981- and what’s left today

Howard Johnson’s, Route 9, Lake George, NY (After being closed for three years, reopened in 2015 by John LaRock, a former  employee of DeSantis. The restaurant still retains its Howard Johnson’s look and serves familiar Ho Jo menu items.)

Howard Johnson’s, Route 9 and 197, South Glens Falls, NY (Sold by DeSantis in the 1990s. Operated as a “Diner” for a while before being demolished. The site is now occupied by a gasoline station convenience store.)

Howard Johnson’s, I-87 Exit 19, Glens Falls, NY (This “Concept 65” restaurant with the T-shaped floor plan was converted to “7 Steers,” a Western-themed steakhouse run by the DeSantis family, in the late 1990s. The building later housed “Play Xtreme Sports” and was vacant for several years. The building has been demolished and a new DeRaffele diner, the Ambrosia Diner, now occupies the site.)

Howard Johnson’s, I-87 Exit 9, Clifton Park, NY (Sold, reopened as a Denny’s circa 1987. Converted to an IHOP in 2006.)

Howard Johnson’s, Thruway Exit 30, Herkimer, NY (Now Denny’s.)

Howard Johnson’s, Oswego, NY (Closed, status of building uncertain.)

Red Coach Grill, Route 9, Lake George, NY (DeSantis later went independent at this location under the name “Coachman.” The restaurant was eventually sold and was later remodeled into a Johnny Rockets.)

Copper Kettle, I-87 Exit 18, Glens Falls, NY (Remodeled and named Carl R’s Cafe, presumably after its owner.)

Mohawk Station, Mohawk, NY (Still there, but no longer owned by DeSantis.  Reopened in 2012 under the management of Todd J. Lewis and Anthony G. Lewis II.