Progress on our doorstep: who closed Porky’s?

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Porky’s Drive-In served its last cheeseburger over the weekend. With the quick closing announcement, Central Corridor Light Rail Transit critics wasted little time blaming the CCLRT construction project for Porky’s demise.

I’m sure that University Avenue rail alignment construction played some small role but the 50s-era drive-in restaurant has been dying for decades. Although Porky’s was one of the very last of its kind, the restaurant ultimately closed because it couldn’t or wouldn’t change with the times. That’s not a successful business model.

Media coverage immediately focused on the nostalgic 50s and 60s car cruising culture, lamenting the loss of a simpler, easier time. Closer study reveals experience distinctly at odds with memory. That era was no simpler or easier than any other. Population shift to the growing suburbs required the same car necessary to patronize the drive-in restaurant. Mobility at modest cost meant greater consumer choices, fueling not fighting the American dream.

Drive-in restaurants required ready access to large chunks of affordably priced property, necessary for the parking lots and low labor costs to staff the restaurants. As wages grew, the car-hop became financially untenable. And, lastly, leisurely in-car dining lost its charm as the auto became a means of conveyance rather than an end in itself. In other words, drive-in restaurants began declining almost as soon as they became popular.

Porky’s long-time owners, the Truelson family, noted that the restaurant was only “doing ok.” And, in closing it, they didn’t simply walk away from a decreasingly profitable business; they’ve leveraged their closing announcement into stronger asset dispersion sales. The media attention, combined with nostalgia, means people will be pay more for iconic Porky’s items.

Lastly, the Truelson family contacted neighboring Episcopal Homes last July about purchasing the property. They’ve been planning for Sunday’s last day for quite some time. The sale will increase affordable, flexible senior housing in Saint Paul. LRT’s presence means greater mobility opportunities for residents.

Life doesn’t stand still. University Avenue, Saint Paul’s great commercial strip, is living proof of change and growth. Rail transit isn’t killing business. In fact, its return to University will drive growth and increase property values. It’s great that Porky’s hung on as long as it did but let’s learn the right and real lessons from its closing.