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  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Sue Tracy, right, gives her daughter and co-worker Ryan Strader customer orders. Tracy has been with Penguin Point for 26 years; Strader, 16 years.

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Focus Fast food vets: Sue Tracy, right, chats with frequent customers Shelley Crum, left, and Ruth Stroh. Tracy has been with Penquin Point for 26 years.

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Focus Fast food vets: Sue Tracy with her daughter Ryan Strader, left. Tracy has been with Penquin Point for 26 years; Ryan, 16 years.

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Focus Fast food vets: Sue Tracy has been with Penquin Point for 26 years.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 5:07 pm

Penguin Point like 2nd home

Rosa Salter Rodriguez The Journal Gazette

On her way from unlocking the front door, Sue Tracy quickly pats the soil in a potted plant decorating the dining area of Fort Wayne’s Penguin Point restaurant to see if the plant needs watering.

Both tasks are part of her job as manager at the south-side fast-food establishment, she says, as is "just about everything else," from frying up the chicken to mopping the bathrooms, including after someone once went into labor in one of them.

Today, she’s also trying to hire someone new for the counter because two employees left unexpectedly when other interests took precedence in their young lives.

Unlike those employees, Tracy has been working at Penguin Point, 7303 Winchester Road, for more than 26 years. "Yeah," she says, "hard to believe."

But the mother of three daughters and grandmother of 19 sees the job as her calling.

"I love this place. I live it, and I love the business," Tracy says, as she settles into a booth whose spotless tabletop is matched only by the cleanliness of the floor. "I walked in in September 1988 and basically haven’t left."

Over the years, a lot has changed in the restaurant business, says Tracy, 57, who started restaurant work as a waitress when she was 16 in her native Wisconsin.

That first restaurant was a sit-down, family-style place; such eateries have become fewer and farther between, she notes, and that’s a trend she expects will continue. Even some of the megachains of fast food have been struggling lately, she points out.

But she sees a secure future for the family-run, Warsaw-based Penguin Point, which combines a recently remodeled eat-in space with a retro vibe and the convenience of a drive-thru window.

The restaurant’s winning formula is simple, she says: "Mostly, it’s staying the same."

Indeed, much of Penguin Point’s menu is little changed from 1950, when two brothers from Warsaw, the Stouders, both former car-hops, thought they could do the drive-in restaurants they knew one better.

Tracy says customers return time and time again – for the chicken, the fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, the Big Wally hamburgers and the milkshakes, not to mention the fat, crinkle-cut french fries made from only Idaho potatoes.

"They tried to mess with them once (by getting a new supplier), and boy, was there an uproar," Tracy says. "So, yeah, the original french fries are back, and they’re going to stay."

That’s not to say Penguin Point hasn’t changed, Tracy says. Over time, it closed four outlets in Fort Wayne, although 12 others remain, in Warsaw, Elkhart, Auburn, Syracuse, Marion and Plymouth.

But by being smaller, the company can be more customer-responsive, she says.

When trendy sandwich wraps didn’t sell, they were pulled from the menu without a lot of fuss, she recalls. And, after company officials realized Penguin Point was getting a lot of big orders for family parties at holidays, a catering niche expanded.

"A lot of the customers here become like family because you see them every week, or every day sometimes," says Ryan Strader, 32, who has been working with her mom since she turned 16.

Indeed, Tracy says, she’s hired quite a few people from among the sons and daughters of regulars. It’s her way of ensuring the future – of the business and of the employees.

"When you get the kids, you can make a real impression on kids when you give them their first jobs," she says, noting she’s seen many develop good work habits and go on to college and into the military. "I like the young employees. You counsel them, nudge them along."

Tracy says she’s been invited to weddings of customers’ family members, and she recalls that one woman called her first after the woman’s husband died.

"A lot of people have a lot of history here," she says.

rsalter@jg.net