Launching Pad has new owners

Pam Monson

    The Launching Pad’s new owners, Tully Garrett and Holly Barker, have big ideas for the iconic Route 66 Drive-In, but also want it to be The Pad the community cherishes.
    The couple came to Wilmington to visit the antiques district in early September. They came south on Route 53 and rounded Kangley’s Curve, and felt like they were in Tennessee, with its relaxed atmosphere and slow pace.
    “I go, ‘Oh, my God, I love this place,’” Garrett commented. They saw that The Launching Pad was for sale. They hung out for an hour. Other travelers would pull in, take some pictures, look in the windows then go across the street to the gas station. They’d come back with bags of groceries and sit and have a picnic at the shuttered drive-in.
    They saw a lot of potential for a successful restaurant. After a bit more research on the property, they made an offer that was agreeable to the owner, and put down their earnest money.
    Garrett and Barker know they can’t return The Pad to its former glory overnight, and will proceed in phases, just like any new owner builds a business so the community doesn’t have to wait for the property to have a complete overhaul. As soon as the property closes on Oct. 16, they’ll get to work on the exterior. The plan is to fix up the shingled roof, rehabilitate the Launching Pad sign, remove the damaged drive-through menu, add period-appropriate lighting and repave the parking lot.
    “That’s really important, because the way it’s sitting out there now, it really is an eyesore,” Garrett said. “You have dips in the parking lot, the old sign in the back that got knocked over ...We really want that to be done.”
    They would like to set up a small portable building in the parking lot near the Gemini Giant where visitors can learn about the landmark and purchase T-shirts, patches, coffee mugs, post cards, pop and snacks — all of the things that travelers buy — and much of it with Wilmington’s name on it. They’d love it to be the city’s visitor’s center.
    They’ll create a photo op — visitors can take as many photos in front of the Giant as they want — but the business will provide a print that has smoke coming out of the rocket, and print the picture in the moment.
    It will take some time to rehab the restaurant kitchen, so in the meantime, Garrett and Barker are planning to bring in food trucks for breakfast, lunch and supper. Tourism, they said, doesn’t stop in the winter.
    By late spring, they expect to be able to open the front dining area with a limited menu, possibly just ice cream at the start. The restaurant will eventually feature a full menu, but they don’t want to sacrifice building improvements to be able to serve a burger.
    Barker said the menu, when it comes, will be built on community consensus — the community will be invited to provide input on and sample potential menu items.
    Each month’s profits will be reinvested in the business to make the next improvement.
    “We’re going to call it ... Operation Launch the Pad,” Barker commented.
    The couple has a lot of ideas for the property — farmers markets, car shows, sock hops, movie nights, a museum — and maybe an animated rocket “blasting off” from the roof, if Garrett has his way.
    “We want it to be a go-to place ... we want it to be a place where you feel like you’re in ‘Happy Days’ again, the 50s and 60s,” explained Garrett. The Launching Pad will continue to be family-oriented and wholesome.
    Restaurateurs have become much better managers of space than they were when The Launching Pad was developed, and Garrett and Barker plan to create a community room at the rear of the building, in space that’s not really useful for the kitchen. The room will be available for use by local organizations, at no cost. Barker, who operates the online grief support site “Grief Anonymous,” will host her first official Grief Anonymous meeting there.
    Garrett and Barker want the community to know that what it envisions for The Launching Pad is in the future. They want to come in and save it first.
    “To save something you’ve got to nurture it back to health,” Garrett commented. “We’ll eventually get there, but it’s going to be a little bit down the road ... it’s going to be back on the map in a big way.”
    Find out more about how Garrett and Barker will bring The Launching Pad and what potential they see for the property, in the Oct. 11 print edition of The Free Press Advocate.