How The Plaid Penguin cooks up the right message

Kara Hollinger and Joe Haubenhofer of The Plaid Penguin in the firm's test kitchen area.
Kara Hollinger and Joe Haubenhofer of The Plaid Penguin in the firm's test kitchen area.

When a potential client asked business partners Kara Hollinger and Joe Haubenhofer to jump out of an airplane…well, they did.

And that told their challenger -- Brad Shell of The Unknown Brewing Co. -- everything he needed to know about The Plaid Penguin, an award-winning Charlotte branding agency that specializes in promoting food and beverage industries through its work with restaurants, breweries and entrepreneurs.

“It’s crazy how quickly they were down,” says Shell, who wanted to see if the company personified the brewery’s “Live Without Boundaries” motto.

“The best part about working with Plaid is they’re definitely not a ‘no’ company,” Shell adds. “They never tell me no. They figure out how to make it work.”

Its name is a nod to the seabirds that stick together to the classic pattern that stands the test of time, which is what they want their work to do. They call their office space, at 1512 Camden Road, the Idea Igloo. They’re right in the heart of proposed South End development but say they don’t know how that will impact their space.

With a 25-person shop, Haubenhofer says revenues have grown an average of 45 percent each year since the firm’s launch in 2009. Their clients’ annual revenues range from $500,000 to $1 million annually.

Here’s a look at some of what the firm is doing, and how they work:

Building connections: Both grew up appreciating food, and both ran branding and design businesses out of their garages. Hollinger’s parents owned restaurants in Indianapolis, where she’s from. “I always had hospitality in my blood,” says Hollinger, 37. So she always attracted food clients to her business.

Haubenhofer, 34, fell in love with cooking and pursued the profession after quitting his technology job. He and his brother, Conor Merrigan, founded local roaming supper club Relish Carolina, known for long dinner tables with themed meals.

Their contacts and work approach lead to landing dream client Le Creuset, the French cookware maker. They went to the Charleston, S.C. headquarters and told them stories that come from being lifelong users. Now, “we help them with new product campaigns,” like new colors and the wine and cheese collection. Now, the firm works with Le Creuset on website design, recipes development and writing on products and campaigns, including Wine & Cheese and Cuisines of the World.

Going all in: The first meeting between Hollinger and Scott Harris, owner of Charlotte-based Viva Raw, lasted three hours. Harris recalls Hollinger wanting to truly get the story behind the company that makes and ships bottled raw juices and foods.

Later, Hollinger told The Plaid Penguin team they needed to do Viva Raw’s three-day juice cleanse to really get the company.

Hollinger says by knowing how a Viva Raw customer feels, they were able to design a new logo, color theme and tagline (Meet the New Milkman.)

“Instead of trying to force their own fabricated story onto mine, they made a strong effort to understand what I wanted to communicate through the brand,” says Harris via email.

Presenting Charlotte: Alesha Sin Vanata connected with the agency for website and branding work shortly after opening her farm-to-table restaurant, Little Spoon, in 2014. Vanata is a former food stylist, so “it was nice to feel like you joined this army” in their work partnership. One photo presents soft-boiled eggs served with brioche toast sticks shaped like a hashtag.

“They’re not only looking to push Charlotte forward in a level of branding...they want to create an atmosphere where there’s a lot of repeat business and growth.”

Telling Jim Noble’s story: To capture the philanthropic and entrepreneurial ventures of chef Jim Noble, the team came up with the name, Noble Food and Pursuits and the tagline, Service Beyond the Table.

Noble, who owns two local Rooster’s restaurants, is also a minister who opened The King’s Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant that offers food-service job training and whose profits help feed the poor. Noble and staff and volunteers also are launching a 24-hour ministry called the Charlotte Mecklenburg Dream Center.

“I would tell them the story, and they would write it and tell it right...they’ve come close to expressing what’s in my heart.”

And about that plane jump: During rebranding projects, “all we’re doing is thinking about the client,” Haubenhofer says. It was in that spirit that they took up Shell’s skydiving challenge. Shell drove the van to South Carolina, but didn’t jump himself because of weight restrictions.

And when they landed?

“Now we can do business,” Shell remembers thinking. “They follow our mantra.”