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VOL. 36 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 8, 2012

'We've got something special here'

Manchester embraces Bonnaroo, looks to expand musical brand

By Tim Ghianni

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MANCHESTER – Coffee County Mayor David Pennington might enjoy a Bonnaroo Burger at his family’s landmark restaurant, but he probably won’t be spending much time with Flogging Molly, The Beach Boys, Alice Cooper or others performing for the 80,000 sometimes-mud-encased or sweat-drenched masses huddled at Great Stage Park this week.

“I’m usually pretty busy during Bonnaroo week,” says Pennington, voice rising in excitement when talking about the 11th annual gathering of the Bonnaroovians.

“It’s the same time of the year as our budget. We’re pretty doggone busy.”

Speaking over the lunchtime clatter at Jiffy Burger, he notes that he – along with Manchester Mayor Betty Superstein – will sneak out to the festival at least once. They might catch a dash of music, but the two officials go in the line of duty, annually taking the stage to present the key to the city to a musician or band.

B.B. King, Kris Kristofferson and Widespread Panic have been among the so-honored in the past for their roles in attracting millions of dollars to the rolling acres next to Interstate 24. “B.B. King was such a gentleman, so gracious,” says Superstein. “When we gave the keys to Widespread Panic – they each wanted one, which was so cute – I had to call my children to see who they were.”

When Pennington goes out to thank musicians and organizers, he’s also counting the cash represented by the seemingly endless sea of faces gazing up at the stage.

“I really enjoy it out there,” he says of the festival, which has become an American cultural touchstone. The county mayor relishes taking his 11-year-old granddaughter, Emily St. John, with him. “I like to watch the hippies dance,” says Emily, who also claims to be among the biggest enthusiasts of Jiffy Burger’s officially sanctioned festival hamburger.

Pennington won’t be able to see The Bad Brains or The Kooks, but he celebrates their performances every time he looks over the budget he’s preparing for the upcoming fiscal year.

“Just the sales tax will jump up a half-million extra because Bonnaroo comes in,” Pennington says as he enjoys his lunch, punctuated by a little political laying on of the hands and handshakes at the Jiffy Burger. “Then we are talking another $250,000 to $275,000 from ticket sales. We get $3 per ticket and a $25,000 base.

“We plug that into our budget figures. When we are talking about budgets, one penny of property tax generates $94,000 dollars.

“So just what we get from the ticket sales alone is three cents we don’t have to add to the property tax.”

That annual windfall of around $750,000 already is accounted for on the budget ledgers, he adds.

The county mayor’s family is among those who help collect the sales tax at the former Frosty Top Root Beer stand bought by Ellen and J.W. Pennington back in 1964.

Now deceased, the couple – the county mayor’s parents – raised their family here, helping create the Jiffy Burger legacy. Happy Days-style curb service is offered out back while amiable conversation prevails inside among the mementoes – from photos of decades of Jiffy-sponsored Little League teams to a Howdy Doody marionette “driving” a pedal car.

Pennington’s wife Nancy still owns half the restaurant and works here. But their daughter, Tracy St. John – Emily’s mom – bought her dad’s half after he was elected county mayor.

“He didn’t believe he could be running the Jiffy Burger and the county at the same time,” says Nancy, who first made the only “real” Bonnaroo Burger two years ago.

“It’s one of our biggest sellers,” she says. “We keep it on the menu all the time now. I’m addicted to it.”

She didn’t think that would happen when Jeff Cuellar, Bonnaroo director of community relations, dictated his recipe to her as a way of celebrating the friendship forged between the festival and the Jiffy Burger.

It’s wasn’t difficult for Cuellar and his Bonnaroo bosses to settle on this mom-and-pop landmark as their unofficial HQ when they first hit town to begin planning more than a decade ago. This unassuming little restaurant that lacks the yellow or orange corporate neon of the chain joints is a natural draw for those seeking a touch of home while trekking along U.S. 41, a major route traversing the North and South in the pre-interstate era.

When they began stopping in here to plot out their first fest, Cuellar and the Bonnaroo bosses didn’t really know for sure what would happen out at the rural acreage that has become the 700-acre Great Stage Park.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” says Cuellar, with a mixture of laughter and awe in his voice. “What we were proposing was something different than anyone ever had done. There wasn’t a model out there. … We knew what we were going after, but to have it materialize? Well, it was beyond our wildest dreams.”

And the partnership forged with the Coffee County community by Cuellar and Bonnaroo bosses Ashley Capps and Rick Farman has proven as important as the logistics of setting up stages, bringing in performers and trying to maintain a safe camping and celebratory experience.

The Jiffy Burger is the prime example of the goodwill and partnership linking the community and the festival. Formulating the official Bonnaroo Burger at the classic drive-in or dine-in joint as well as designing the menu with the festival’s official logo demonstrates this bond.

That trademark isn’t loaned out without due deliberation. “We’ve been able to leverage our brand 365 days a year,” Cuellar says.

There may be opportunists who’d like to “borrow” that Bonnaroo name without permission, but that’s not allowed.

Yet, the festival gladly not only shared the trademark but created the burger at the half-century-old local hangout.

Cuellar remembers the day he and other Bonnaroo officials “were joking around, wondering why we didn’t have a Bonnaroo Burger?”

There was only one place Cuellar could think of to fashion such a beast, “so I gave the county mayor a call and wondered to him half-jokingly if they could make one. He called up his daughter, Tracy, at the Jiffy Burger and said ‘Let’s make a Bonnaroo Burger.’”

Cuellar was allowed to dictate the ingredients, since it is his festival’s official meat treat. No vegan special here. It all begins with a four-ounce burger patty. Add cheese, two pieces of bacon, an onion ring, mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickle. And it’s crowned with a fried egg.

“When he told me what he wanted to do with this burger, I thought: ‘A burger with an egg on it?’” Nancy Pennington remembers her initial reaction. “But I said, ‘Well, we’re gonna do it anyway.’”

She grabbed the ingredients and followed Cuellar’s instructions to create “what has become one of the main burgers on the menu.”

Of course, the festival, with its eclectic mix of “Bonnaroovians” (aka “Roonies’’) is stereotyped as a gathering of hippies. That’s far from the complete truth.

Still since the fest prides itself on earning acclaim for its green initiatives – composting, recycling, ride-sharing, etc. – Knoxville resident Cuellar had to suffer a few light-hearted slings and arrows for his concoction.

“I had people asking me why it’s not avocado, all this hippie-type stuff. I said ‘This is the South. I wanted a comfort-food type of thing.’ I don’t think they really believed.”

The burger, though, is just the tastiest and perhaps best-known example of the community and festival symbiosis.

Other merchants court and enjoy the mostly young people and their annual summer vacation that swells the town of 10,000 people to about 100,000.

At the Coffee Café there’s the ’Roo Wrap : a spinach tortilla wrapped around grilled chicken, spinach, tomato, purple onion, mango chutney, honey mustard and Provolone cheese.

“There are some other ‘Roos around town, but I believe we’re the only ones with the Bonnaroo trademark,” says Nancy Pennington.

Early Roonies meet up in the days before the music starts at Walmart, where not only are camping supplies and staples available but where RV campers are allowed to park.

Walgreens steps up its inventory of snacks, coolers, cold drinks and other festival favorites. Manager Trey Gooch says orders of toilet paper and other personal essentials are trebled or quadrupled.

The Home Depot makes sure there are plenty of generators, extension cords, five-gallon buckets and tarps.

“It gives us business and picks up everything,” says Jennifer Vandusen, an employee at J&D Market on Hwy. 55, close to the festival grounds. “We sell a lot of water and ice.”

Churches join in the welcome by setting up tables and handing out free water to the campers as they make their way toward the gates.

That community involvement – mutual between the fest and the residents – has helped douse early skepticism when the first Bonnaroo descended.

Because there had never been a Bonnaroo before, community shakers didn’t plan for the traffic that rolled into the area and then parked for hours, giving the first gathering its biggest headlines for the I-24 traffic jam.

Now, thanks to the festival and city and county and state agencies, there are more entrances, including a dedicated Bonnaroo exit ramp from Interstate 24.

J&D Market’s Vandusen testifies to the difference between 2002 and 2012. She worked as a cook at the first Bonnaroo.

“We ran out of everything,” she explains. “And there were long lines. They were not prepared for hardly any of it then. Now they have it down to a science.”

Cuellar doesn’t fault anyone for not being prepared. As he says, not even the organizers knew what they had until the throngs descended that first year.

“We knew what we were going after, but to have it materialize, it was beyond our wildest dreams. Most festivals lose money the first three to five years. To come out of the gates and sell 70,000 tickets was unprecedented.”

And he knows some people were skeptical because of the shortcomings of 1999’s Itchycoo Park Festival. Staged by different promoters, that fest brought oldies FM staples like Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Grand Funk Railroad and Jefferson Airplane’s easy-listening spinoff Starship to the same pastureland.

“Now here we are bringing in bands that a lot of people had never heard of,” he says of The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains and others that played the inaugural fest. “The bands we put on stage in 2002 are not your normal bands.”

The fact that the word spread on the near-virgin Internet rather than by traditional advertising methods also confused the locals. “They said ‘we haven’t seen a television commercial….’”

What happened is historic. The logistics of bringing 70,000-80,000 people into a town of 10,000 had not been tested, and they pretty much failed. But the planners – and townspeople – learned from the mistakes.

“I do believe that if we didn’t have the first year the way it was, we wouldn’t be in the same place,” Cuellar says. “It was ‘this happened, we are all here together. We can move forward.’”

Not only were the best in the industry brought in to smooth out the rough edges, community involvement grew once the people realized what they had.

“The community made it that much stronger,” says Cuellar. “It was ‘We’re going to figure this out and it’s going to be wonderful. We’ve got something special here.’”

And that bond has been enhanced by time. While other towns may have Mule Days, Pioneer Days and other heritage festivals to serve as tourism draws, Manchester and Coffee County can depend on the happy cash influx of the annual gathering of Bonnaroovians.

That working together is a key, Cuellar says. “It’s the open relationship we have. We want everyone to feel the positive impact in the community.”

While the festival planners focused on the grounds and the bands, the city and county, the churches and the cafes leaped in “to show these visitors how awesome Coffee County is, how awesome Manchester is,” Cuellar says. “The local community took the bull by the horns.”

The commitment to the festival displayed by the community was more than reciprocated by Bonnaroo organizers. Just last week, the festival announced that more than $5 million has been donated to local, regional and national charities and organizations during the first decade.

Farman, one of the festival partners, says plans call for that charitable giving to increase in the next decade.

“One of our founding principles is to give back at the local, regional and national levels and we are pleased that we’ve been able to significantly impact a number of organizations that fit the festival’s mission,” Farman stated in a press release. “We’ve learned a lot about how best to steer that effort, and as we look to the next decade, we’re hoping to increase dramatically our next 10-year commitment.”

Manchester Mayor Superstein points out that she and the city police force have a cookout near the city hall gazebo all week, providing a place for state and local law enforcement and emergency workers to stop for grilled steaks, pork chops, half chickens and the fixings. “All the food is provided by Bonnaroo,” she says.

While there are detractors, most in the area celebrate and protect Bonnaroo.

“We love Bonnaroo,” says Nancy Pennington. “The first couple of years, they didn’t have the traffic situation under control yet. Now it’s smooth.

“But even back then, we enjoyed the kids…. They would be lining up in front of our restaurant. The traffic would be coming to a dead stop. The kids would get out their lawn chairs and get their Frisbees and play in the street…. They were all nice kids.”

Many of those original Roonies spread the gospel not only of the festival but of Manchester and particularly the Jiffy Burger.

“We have so many of them now who come in who have learned we’re a little mom-and-pop place. They like it because we are different.”

She says her fellow merchants share the enthusiasm.

“We really have embraced those kids. We have kids who come in here every year. I can’t even begin to tell you how many different places all over the world they come from,” Nancy says. “They have different languages. Some of them will come here and just have to point at what they want on the menu.”

The secret, she says, is the same as the secret that has made Jiffy Burger an iconic institution in Middle Tennessee. “When a person comes in our restaurant, I want them to feel like they are special, because they are. I want them to feel like they got the best food here. I want it to be a good experience for them.”

Her county mayor husband brightens. “Bonnaroo has been a real asset to our community,” he says.

“Not just through the revenue through the merchants. They give to schools. They give to the nonprofits. The nonprofits get to work out there and they can make more money in four days than they do with all the rest of the year.

“They work at a lot of the food booths. The Rotary Club parks the cars. It’s the food and beverages and the parking.”

He says a total of 10,000 people are employed at Great Stage Park. “They spend their money here in the community.”

In addition to the tax figures, the economic impact is $20 million-plus, according to the county mayor.

City alderman Ryan French, who by day is manager of a Walgreens in Decherd – echoes the county mayor.

“Any neighbor who comes in for three days a year and has that kind of impact on you is special,” he says. “They’ve been so good in the community. They do treat our city as neighbors. They aren’t just using us for space. They’ve embraced us and in return, we’ve embraced them.”

Retired ironworker James E. Clayton, 82, is a believer in Bonnaroo, even though the closest he gets to it is his front porch. “They’re about three miles away, but I can hear ‘em,” he says, after ordering his Jiffy Burger lunch.

No, he’s not ordering a Bonnaroo Burger, but Clayton, who was the foreman on the south leg of the St. Louis arch – “I was there when they joined ‘em,” he says of that landmark – happily endorses what the fest has done for his hometown. “I think Bonnaroo is a wonderful thing,” he says. “It helps the county, helps the city, brings in a lot of income.”

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