Nov 8, 2021 - Culture

I saw a sign, and it opened up my eyes to Charlotte’s history

new penguin sign

New Penguin Signage up at 1531 East Blvd. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Charlotte is obsessed with signs from the past. There’s even an entire exhibit dedicated to them at the Charlotte Museum of History. But I noticed one sign, in particular, is getting a lot of hate on social media lately.

More than 100 people took to our Instagram comments section of the picture we posted of the new Penguin sign outside of the new Penguin restaurant in Dilworth — which is definitely not to be confused with the old Penguin sign outside of the old Penguin in Plaza Midwood.

Most comments were negative and took offense, as if the new sign was treading on a beloved piece of burger history.

  • “There is only the original.”
  • “I will never not be sad about this.”

Well, here’s some news: The person who designed that new sign, 26-year-old George Hatzikostopoulos, is a Charlotte native whose family goes back several generations here.

  • Not only that, they were popular restaurant owners, and George says he reveres the city’s restaurant history.

Why it matters: “It’s about respecting the ones that came before us,” he tells me.

George Hatzikostopoulos
Owner of GH Designs, the company behind the new Penguin sign. Photo: Courtesy of George Hatzikostopoulos.

Context: Hatzikostopoulos started designing logos for his family’s businesses at the age of 16. Being from Charlotte, he says he’s seen some iconic signs come and go, including those that belonged to his family. 

  • “I used to walk down the street and say ‘that’s pappoús restaurant,’ I want my kids to be able to do the same,” he said.
  • His grandfather owned Mayflower Seafood Restaurant, and his family is behind the now extinct Parthenon Gift Shop.
  • Now, he helps re-design and preserve signs through his business GH Designs.
Omega Plaza signs
Omega Plaza signs before and after. Photo: Courtesy of George Hatzikostopoulos.

OK, but: What’s that “Everybody’s A Winner” tagline on the new Penguin sign?

Hatzikostopoulos tells me, “The Penguin is about good times and good memories. These days, everyone’s pulling each other down. We want to bring the spirit of the Penguin back. Feeling great, happy, a place where Everyone’s a Winner.”

In any case, Hatzikostopoulos isn’t the only Charlottean working to preserve the city’s iconic signs.

Christopher S. Lawing started photographing signs around the city in 2010 and founded The Charlotte Signs Project. About a decade later, The Charlotte Museum of History contacted him to help curate the exhibit Charlotte: Signs of Home

  • Like Hatzikostopoulos, Lawing’s goal is to preserve the city’s history through signage.
  • He also wrote a book about those iconic signs and published it in 2017.
  • You see a sign and you’re transported back in time,” Lawing says. 

After speaking to Lawing and Hatzikostopoulos, it’s not surprising to me that our post about the Penguin sign evoked strong emotions. Lawing tells me he’s seen people tear up over the removal of some signs.

Signs at Charlotte museum
Charlotte: Signs of Home is on display at the Charlotte Museum of History right now. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios
  • Take the JGF Coffee sign, for example, which was taken down in 2009 from its original location near Bank of America Stadium.
  • “It’s a tangible thing that ties you back to a memory,” Lawing tells Axios.

Levine Museum of the New South staff historian Willie Griffin agrees and says “they remind people of days gone by.”

  • But Griffin says that something else might be happening: Rather than signs, Charlotte’s architecture and buildings are becoming iconic visual staples now.

What’s next: Hatzikostopoulos is working on preserving the Landmark Diner sign, which was hand-painted more than 30 years ago, and is still standing today. He hopes his work will make it into the museum’s exhibit one day. 

Charlotte History Museum
The original Penguin sign is on loan to the museum by the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association. Photo: Laura Barrero/ Axios
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