An Expanding Penguin Leaves Fans Cranky

Painful joblessness continues. Health costs skyrocket. State and local budgets are reeling; the school board may close a bunch of schools. And people in Charlotte are steamed about … the Penguin?  Yep. Few recent news items have gotten under more people’s skin than hearing that the guys who renovated and have run the Plaza-Midwood restaurant for a decade are leaving, apparently not happily, and the building owners want to try to franchise the Penguin – making one of Charlotte’s relatively few unique spots no longer unique. And that is the biggest rub.  People love the Penguin for many reasons. (Of course, not everyone loves it, but given the lines, it’s clear thousands do.) One reason is where it is, in a diverse, in-town area with plenty of artsy types as well as its share of yuppies. The neighborhood actually has a couple of blocks of real storefront buildings – rare in this city. The Penguin, itself in an aging and decidedly unglitzy building, draws a crowd ranging from tattooed to wing-tipped.  This is an era in which people love “authenticity,” meaning a place that’s its own self and nothing else. The Penguin is one of those places.  And it’s not only that the Penguin is authentic, but it’s authentic in a city where over the years so many once-authentic places are now parking lots, or closed or otherwise gone. Remember the all-night Athens restaurant? A parking lot. Remember the Coffee Cup? It’s a blank field of red clay. Jack Wood’s men’s clothing store on South Tryon? A parking lot. Anderson’s Restaurant and its see-and-be-seen breakfasts? Gone.  Since so little that is beloved in Charlotte seems to last, people tend to invest more of their hearts into the few spots with quirky personality and atmosphere.  Sure, it’s a key part of capitalism that when you have a successful business you may want to expand it. No one is saying the Penguin’s owners have no right to try franchising. But in doing so, they take something many people treasure – the unique Penguin in unique Plaza-Midwood in unique Charlotte, North Carolina – and throw it overboard.  Maybe in a few years folks in, let’s say, Spartanburg will see a Penguin franchise open. Maybe they’ll go. But maybe, instead, they’ll head to the Beacon Drive In. After all, that’s their own unique and beloved local joint. Who needs a chain?



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