It’s clear that events surrounding the Penguin Drive-In in Charlotte, North Carolina are creating quite a stir locally. I’ve been watching the comments on this site, in my twitter feed and on the Birds Facebook page with great interest from my vantage point here in St. Louis. I’m touched that so many people have taken the time to read my initial thoughts on the topic, and for that I thank you.
I’m especially interested in the thoughts around this boycott and how it will impact the neighborhood the Penguin calls home - - a neighborhood that by all accounts was rejuvenated in part by the rehabilitation of a classic American restaurant.
It’s a real concern -- but I’m not sure its really the point -- at least for me.
You see, missing from this argument - - that a boycott will adversely effect its surrounding environment -- is an acknowledgement of just what the Penguin is.
Never mind that the Penguin was a failing business for many years, that its best days were far behind it before its business was rebuilt. Never mind that Jimmy King and Brian Rowe opened themselves to a questionable level of risk by allowing the Ballentine family to maintain the business's name and hold the lease on its home. Never mind that long time chef Greg Auten has been retained for when management changes hands in October. These things are the drama, the raw emotions, the things that will eventually fade for most people with time.
What matters is the uniqueness of this American landmark. What matters is what will be lost as the Bird’s menu is commoditized, its decor standardized and its vibe packaged up for deployment to cities far and wide. Make no mistake, that is the plan. That is why a franchise specialist has been added to the management team.
Without a doubt it appears that King and Rowe are getting the shaft and the community is rightfully standing up for them. Again, this anger, this defense of the recent management will eventually pass. The bigger issue is with the Ballentine family’s plans to franchise the Penguin. Franchising the Penguin is where the long term damage will be done – both to the brand and the neighborhood that opponents of the boycott are so worried about.
As the “how” of the Penguin is written up in business, marketing and operating plans – I wonder how the Ballentine family will capture the “what” and “who”? It is here that most franchise concepts fail, because it is incredibly hard to capture the soul of a place like the Bird and transplant it.
How will the Ballentine family institutionalize the people who rebuilt the Penguin? How about the work ethic and the feeling of ownership by the staff?
How will they transplant that ethos to its second location? How about its tenth?
As an example; if a Penguin Drive-In lands in Cleveland, Ohio, why will the employees there care about the restaurant? Why will working at the Bird be more than a job?
The simple answer is that it won’t matter anymore, the magic will be long gone. In an effort to bottle up and ship the Penguin to places other, the very things that make it special will be lost, even as the original location lives on -- even if it has more in common with a Monkey Joe's than a classic American burger joint.