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What $100,000 provides at new HoJo care center

Nine-month-old Caitlin is staring at the Cheerios spread out on the table in front of her. ''Hmmm, another new experience,'' the round-faced and bibbed bundle seems to be thinking.

She is teething now, and the teachers in the baby-blue infant room here at Howard Johnson's headquarters are helping her make the move from soft food to a few adult foods. Caitlin's mother, Catherine Lally, works upstairs as a secretary in the Howard Johnson personnel office.

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In the past, ''I wouldn't consider a day-care center,'' Mrs. Lally says, because of concern over quality. Before the center downstairs opened in August, she was dropping Caitlin off with a licensed, in-home baby sitter who was recommended by her family. The care was full of love, she says, but a bit inconvenient. On Mondays, she had to lug crib, clothing, and food to the house.

Day-care costs are important to her, but not as important as quality. As she watched the Howard Johnson's center take shape, she found herself looking at what she calls a ''top-notch, consistent'' center that could add some structure to her child's life. She feels a sense of teamwork with the teachers, and at the end of the day ''I just scoop Caitlin up and we're off.'' Mrs. Lally could afford to stay home with her child if she had to, ''but there's a lot going on with this company, and I'd like to stay.''

If Mrs. Lally is any indication of what's to come, Howard Johnson's center will be considered a success. ''Our effort is to present the company as a forward-thinking firm, rather than a staid old-line town company,'' says chairman Michael Hostage, who initiated the idea. ''We are anxious to be more of an employer of choice than we have in the past. ... We regard our (nearly $100, 000) investment in the center as a permanent loan and don't expect it back in dollar terms but in employee preference and (company) image.''

On-site centers are more the exception in corporate-sponsored child care. They seem to work best at isolated, company headquarters that serve a large population, consultants say. Mr. Hostage, who has 10 children himself ''and probably a higher level of consciousness'' because of that, seems sold on the idea.

With a consultant's help, the company has built a brand-new center, with play space inside and out. It has room for 60 children, but now only has 11, with six staff (who are among the highest paid in the area). Although community parents must pay full price for the service, Howard Johnson's employees get a discount, plus a pre-tax salary reduction.

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