Penny Craver is not one to make a big fuss about things.
It was well into our chat over dinner at Lupie’s Cafe on a recent Wednesday night that she let it slip that it was her birthday, a fact I only pulled out of her after she mentioned in passing that she’s a Virgo. This is why I’m expecting it will be without much fanfare that Craver steps into the next chapter of her life, a move that will surely be met with plenty of fuss around Charlotte.
On Sept. 28, Craver and fellow co-owners Lawrence Stubbs and Maggie McGee-Stubbs will sell the hugely popular Plaza Midwood eatery Dish, which they’ve owned since 2002.
Recent announcements about the closure of the Dairy Queen at the corner of Pecan and Central avenues and the sale and potential redevelopment of 12 acres across the street have already created plenty of buzz about the changing face of the neighborhood. So I asked her, “Are you trying to give everyone a heart attack?!”
She laughed, “No, I really am not. It’s just the right time. I don’t know how it sparked, but you just know when it does, and we’re ready to go.”
The good news, according to Craver, is that she’s found a buyer who is dedicated to keeping the vision of Dish alive, and though she couldn’t disclose the buyer at the time of our conversation, she said they’re only making minor changes that she calls “very positive.”[UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, Unpretentious Palate reported that Dish was bought by Lewis Donald, owner of Sweet Lew’s BBQ in the Belmont neighborhood.]
After nearly 30 years as a leader of Charlotte’s music and food scenes, Craver is taking an early retirement and moving down to a home she bought in Surf City in 2016, while Lawrence and Maggie plan to spend more time traveling and visiting family.
While Lawrence said he looks forward to traveling, gambling and taking lots of photos, Maggie said her goal during retirement is “meeting all the darlin’s of the world that I haven’t met already.”
Before Craver could skip town (she’ll be spending plenty of time back in Charlotte), we talked to her about all the changes past, present and future, and why she’s excited to leave Dish while watching it continue on in years to come.
Queen City Nerve: Why did you decide now was the time to retire?
Penny Craver: I’m telling ya, I’m tired. After Tremont [Music Hall, which Craver founded], then going to Amos’ [Southend] for a little bit, then Dish, it’s been a rough past 25 years or so. It’s very time-consuming and I haven’t had a lot of free time, and so I’m tired. I’m ready to retire. I’m lucky in that I’m going to be OK in taking an early retirement, I think.
A whole new entity is coming in but they are very committed to continuing Dish; they’ve got the same love for Southern food that we have and so I’m stoked for it. They have very few changes planned, for at least a while, but the ones they have are things that I had thought of at times, so it’s just like we’re kind of on the same page. It’s creepy good. One of my employees said, “This is the antithesis of The Penguin.” We are so excited that we have found people who want to continue with Dish and pretty much have a similar vision that we had and beyond.
How important was it to you to find someone who would carry on that vision?
Well, we had an offer and they were going to totally change it, and that didn’t work out, and that’s ok, because ultimately, this is what we want. It’s kind of your baby, it’s kind of like your child, like Tremont was, and you want to see the child flourish and do well. It wasn’t a prerequisite, but it was very nice. It was really cool that it turned out this way.
You’ve seen Plaza Midwood change a lot since opening in 2002. What are your thoughts on where it’s been and where things are going?
There were some people that had a vision for the Plaza Midwood area; it was people like Hope [Nicholls] and Aaron [Pitkin, owners of Boris + Natasha] and Robert [Boyd at City Supply Co.], the Penguin people. The people that went in there when it really was — when I went in there I still had 12 winos sitting outside my restaurant every day, and it’s gone from that with a vision to revitalize it, to revitalization and now it’s going to go on to major development. I hate to see it go there, because that’s what they do. All the cool places, and this is what I was afraid would happen; all the cool places that made it so cool have to go away because of big business. But now I’m assured that [Dish] is going to be cool, it’s not going to be big business. I hope it’s going to be a successful business, but it’s not a big corporate takeover or anything.
The other thing, the city, in my opinion, you know the saying about a garden, when things can grow so thick that they kill each other, I’m afraid that’s what the city has allowed to happen already. We have so many parking issues over there. Just like the one reason I barely go to NoDa, because I don’t want to walk half a mile to get somewhere. So that’s a dangerous thing that the city has allowed to happen, and I don’t even think they care.
I don’t know how they can not be aware of it, that they’re going to strangle the neighborhood if they’re not careful. They do not have the infrastructure in Plaza Midwood to support the growth that they are allowing to happen. You’ve got 20 businesses using the same two parking lots, it’s ridiculous … and on top of it now there’s 20 more businesses that need to use it. I can honestly say, the city has allowed that to happen and I think it is awful.
In an interview in QNotes about five years ago, you called Merry Oaks, where you live, “the most convenient place to live in Charlotte.” Is that where you plan to stay?
It is still the most convenient place to live in Charlotte, but I will not be sticking around. Some years ago I purchased a home near the coast, in Surf City, and I’m going. I have a brand new kitchen courtesy of Hurricane Florence. I love it. It’s a good place for me because it’s near Wilmington, they have bands come through there, and it’s also not too far from Myrtle Beach if I need to get to House of Blues or somewhere to see a band.
When are you leaving?
ASAP. (laughs) There’s some things I’m going to do that I’ve not been able to do for the last 25 years. I’ll spend the majority of my time down there, but I’ll be up here some.
Well, I had an idea for your next act, since you’ve always talked about your love for the arts, to be owning an art gallery, but it sounds like that’s not happening.
Stick a fork in me, I’m done. People say, “Oh, are you going to open another club?” And I’m like, “Noooo, I’m cooked.”
What were the biggest changes for you going from Tremont and Amos’ into the restaurant industry in 2002?
It’s a hard job. At Tremont, there’s all these people who love music and they wanted to work at Tremont, they’re like, “Please let me work here,” and we were just one big happy family. There was a lot of camaraderie because everybody was there because they loved music and they would get so excited when a particular band was coming through or something like that.
Then you go to the restaurant business, and I had like 26 employees, and people are at Dish because they need a job, they need to earn money. Nobody aspires to be at Dish; they need money and they have other jobs and they have other passions and it affords them the luxury of being able to be off at times when you wouldn’t be off at a normal job.
The kitchen is not an easy thing, you’re not back there being creative. You’re being creative but it’s like, Wolfgang Puck would not be back there, or Gordon Ramsay. It’s a hard job. So that was very difficult to change. I’ve had great employees, do not get me wrong, and there is still camaraderie there, but it’s just different. It could be Dish, it could be Thomas Street [Tavern], it could be Penguin, it could be Soul [Gastrolounge]. That was one thing that was very different. The loyalty and the camaraderie was not there like it had been at Tremont, because Tremont was such a special place.
So I was going to ask you what was your favorite gig out of everything you’ve done in Charlotte, but it sounds like I can guess the answer.
I love Dish, I love seeing the people, I’m going to miss seeing my regulars and sitting down and talking to them, but Tremont is very special to me. We still have get-togethers with Tremont people. I love food, and it’s a necessary thing, you have to eat, but music was always — music and sports, that’s my heart.
You’ve played in bands in the past, most notably The Blind Dates. Do you have any plans to get back behind the drums now that you’ve got the time.
Maybe. My roommate in college, we played throughout college and into grad school at UNC Greensboro, and she’s in Wilson. So yes, we’re planning, and there are plenty of places [near Surf City] if I want to go play cover music.
You’ve run Tremont, Amos’ and even The Milestone back in the early ‘90s. Tremont’s no longer around, Amos’ has been reopened as a smaller venue and The Milestone is in trouble. What are your thoughts on watching the changes in that scene as you’ve been in the restaurant industry?
It’s odd because I had a great relationship with Clear Channel, which forked into Live Nation, and because of them I was able to bring some really top notch acts into Charlotte. So I’m very appreciative of them for what they have done here in Charlotte … and yet it did hurt the individual club owner. But it also meant it was even more important to find your niche. Supporting a large venue would be very difficult now.
It’s changed a lot. And people have taken the venues away because they’re owned by other people who in most cases are not music lovers, they’re just people who want to make money and want to make a business out of it or rent it out and earn income.
It’s making things change, but the whole industry has changed. You’ve got three record companies, really, but you’ve got more music out there than ever before because of the internet. So I don’t know what’s going on right now and I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I know people who don’t even own CDs. Hell, I’ve got 1,700 songs on my phone. So I’m not quite sure where it’s going. Not all change is good, but usually it does settle somewhere that turns out to be probably good, or people can make something good out of it.
What would you say to Charlotte as a farewell before leaving for the coast?
Well, I won’t be totally gone, but I’m not ready for visitors. (laughs) I’m not inviting Charlotte down to stay with me. I never even have time to check Facebook, so this will give me a little time to know what’s happening with people. I’ll be able to keep up with them more.
I would say they should support live music and please go to Dish, because these people, they have a passion about their food just like we did, so I hope they are supportive of the new owners, and I think they’re going to be real happy with what they see. And there’s going to be some changes, some very positive changes, but I’m not allowed to say, but they have some cool stuff planned.
I want to thank [Charlotte], because I’ve been extremely lucky. With the Blind Dates, we had lots of fans here, and people still say, “Hey, I’ve got your Yellow Tape,” and I’m like, “God, what is that, 30 years old?” and they still play it. I want to thank everyone in Charlotte; they’ve been very good to me and I’m very appreciative. My idea of a good life is to leave more than you take from the world and I hope that I have left more than I have taken.
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