View from the DPAC stage during the pre-event run-through.
View from the DPAC stage during the pre-event run-through.

hwy 55 logoYesterday I was in Durham, NC, at the Durham Performing Arts Center, where I was announcing my new book to the about 2,000 people who were there, most of them employees at Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes, and Fries. It was a company-wide rally. Stores everywhere shut down. Franchisees bussed and limousined in their entire staffs, from managers to minimum-wage cooks. Everyone dressed to the nines. Well almost everyone, except for the too-cool-for-this-ish teenagers and/or guys who didn’t realize this thing was set up like the Oscars. Here I am with Kenney Moore, the company’s president and founder, who I’ve gotten to know all too well the past eight months.

me and kenney at the rally

Had a blast. I laughed hard, I cried a little — they’ve raised $1.4 million for their Andy’s Foundation, a good chunk of which goes to the Miracle League, which puts on baseball events for special needs kids, and they had this whole presentation about the kids and how much it meant to them and holy crap I seriously almost bawled.

Having a kid of your own makes you feel new things, people.

Anyway, there were also dance party breaks ….

…. and all kinds of other awards and I got to spend a few minutes talking about the book I’m writing about Kenney and the company and how it’s all happened. And the Operator of the Year proposed to his girlfriend and baby-mama on stage and Kenney gave an awesome keynote speech — and I was on after Kenney, which meant following all that, which, you know, good luck to me, right?

It was awesome, though. I mean, a million different famous people have been on stage there and given amazing performances. And yeah, I know I was only up there for like five minutes, but still, it was a really cool experience. And I actually think it went well enough. That’s what people told me, anyway, and Kenney would tell me if it sucked. Katie had even worked up a mock cover for the book that is an early iteration of what the final production will be, and they put that on the giant screen behind me.

The title right now is HWY 55: BEHIND THE DRIVE: An honest story about what it really takes to chase the American DreamHere’s me on stage with the book cover, revealed for the first time.

(NOTE: This is a mock cover. And it got a little squished when it went up on screen, so it’s not gonna be quite as square as what you’re looking at here. The final product will resemble this in concept — the blue-collar feel, etc. — but instead of a stock photo of an old car, we’re going to do a big photo shoot soon with Kenney and a ’57 Chevy or something like that, and use that for the cover. It’s gonna look amazing. Katie is a genius.)

I’ll have video of what I actually said later, I think. But in the meantime, I thought it’d be fun to post what I wrote out to sort of help me get my thoughts together. That’s how I do it when I speak anywhere — I don’t really do outlines or anything like that, and I don’t usually take notes on stage with me or use a teleprompter. I just write it all out, like if I was writing an essay or whatever, and then I read over it and tweak it and stuff and just get it all in my head. And then, when it comes time to actually take the stage, I just speak from the heart and let come out what may.

So I ended up cutting a lot of this for the sake of time and based on what other people said before me in the rally and stuff, but hey, here’s the whole thing, because it says things I wish I’d had time to say but knew I couldn’t because I couldn’t get all rambly. So here’s my notes for now, and it should be interesting, whenever I get video, to see what I ended up saying compared to what I wrote.

More importantly, here’s some words about the book.

Hwy 55 Rally Book Announcement Notes

First, I’m incredibly grateful to Kenney, and everyone at Hwy 55 who’s helped me with research and interviews and a million other things, for this book. He’s been the perfect guy to write about — open and forthright and just totally unafraid to spill his guts about everything in his life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some people might not think that the wisest, but when it comes to telling a good story — and really, when it comes to helping people — it’s perfect. And the truth is, I needed a guy like him with a story like his to write about. And I’ll tell you about the book in a second, but I want to tell you a quick story, to share my heart here for a minute.

The stories I write, and especially the books I write, are never going to be just a paycheck for me. I didn’t become a writer because I thought it would be cool or because I set my own hours or any of that, although yeah, it is awesome, especially because I have a two-week-old at home right now. Today’s his two-week birthday, actually.

I became a writer because I believe in the power of stories — humans have been telling each other stories since the days of cavemen chiseling dinosaurs on rocks. Before they were products and Hollywood blockbusters, stories were among our first survival tools — they showed us how to make it in the world. 

I got obsessed with stories as a kid because they helped me understand the world, and then I realized I really liked writing them, too, and so those are the types of stories I set out to write.

Even though I didn’t meet Kenney until the end of last year, this whole project goes back to 2009 in a way. I was a senior in college, and when I graduated I married my best friend, Katie, who I’d known since I was 10 years old, and I was writing my first book. It’s called The Edge of Legend, and it’s about a Harlem Globetrotter I went to school with who singlehandedly led the greatest college basketball comeback you’ve probably forgotten you went crazy about in 2007, because it happened with a Division II school — and whose story showed me a lot about how to find new dreams after your old ones have fallen to pieces.

My publisher told me in December 2009 that they weren’t going to be able to publish the book after all because they’d gotten hurt pretty bad by the Great Recession.

But then Katie and I created a publishing company to put the thing out, which we knew at the time was an enormous risk and which we realized later might have even been a fit of insanity.

I still can’t believe Katie went for it. Love really does make you crazy, I guess.

But the book turned out great, because she’s a superhero, and we sold enough, and we didn’t go homeless, and it helped open some doors to do some pretty fun work and tell some pretty good stories for some pretty good magazines, and at a really young age. I’m lucky.

But over the past few years, I’ve been getting a little frustrated with journalism, for a number of reasons — in short, the work I was doing just didn’t feel all that useful. And I was kind of burnt out on the whole thing, so I started looking to do something different. I wanted to write more books like The Edge of Legend, books that helped people work their way through life, because honestly, working on them helps me find my own way through. I wanted my work during my time on this earth to really help people. And I don’t mean self-help books — when it comes to books, the most helpful ones I’ve ever read are simply good stories well told. 

So I went recruiting, consulting with at least a dozen people on their book projects and thinking about partnering with some of them to actually write their books with them. It was going well enough, and I talked to a lot of good and smart and big-hearted people with good stories, a guy whose grandmother had survived a Nazi war camp during the Holocaust, and another guy who was a lawyer who knew all kinds of crazy stories about the criminal underground in Charleston, SC, but none of them were quite working out for us. I started getting pretty stressed, so much so, actually, that I did something I never do, which is pray, to God. 

And then, toward the end of October, I met with Kenney. We connected right away, we both played baseball at the same college and really wanted to do meaningful things with our lives, and when I left my first meeting with him, I knew that this is the book I wanted to spend the next year or two of my life writing.

The day I signed the contract with Kenney, my wife actually got a raise, too, so if God does answer prayers for little people like us, this was as clear a sign as any. Good day for the Sneeds. You have to understand how huge a deal this was to us. The reason Kenney had wanted to partner with me was because he that book my wife and I put out, The Edge of Legend. So, for EOL to bring us Kenney’s book was a really nice full circle thing. Plus it was just this huge rush of relief and validation and joy. You know, we’re doing the right things. We’re gonna be all right.

So we wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate, probably get a bottle of wine, you know. Katie got home from work and freshened up while I finished up a little work in my office, which at the time was on the second floor of our home. Katie calls me downstairs, she’s ready to go out. But when I get to the top of the stairs, she’s already at the bottom, looking up for me. She’s got this look on her face, kind of scared, kind of ecstatic.

I say, “You’re kidding me.”

She shakes her head and she holds up the pregnancy test, and it has that little plus sign on it.

And then as I got to know Kenney, all too well, I might add — I’ve spent more time with him in the past eight months than my own father — I realized that this is what he lives for. To give people those moments. You all probably know the story of how he started Hwy 55. He was broke a year into it when he finally realized that he shouldn’t be making the business all about building his own little empire, but rather about helping other people become successful. His mission since then has been to do whatever he can to make others’ lives better. And now he’s doing it in countries all over the world.

And the thing about that is that if ever someone seemed destined for a lifetime of anonymous mediocrity and struggle, it’s Kenney Moore, a beach-bum boy from eastern North Carolina. By 28, he had a wife and an infant son and no job and no money. He’d failed, over and over again, both in business and in life, same as countless other American dreamers. With his last $500, he made a last-ditch effort at taking control of his life by opening his own restaurant, a ’50s-style burger joint.

That is now became Hwy 55, a multinational corporation poised to become a billion-dollar company.

In our book, Kenney puts his life, his soul, and his demons under an unyielding spotlight. That’s what really impresses me about Kenney. More than his inspirational building-something-from nothing business story, more than his humbling do-for-others-before-yourself servant leadership philosophies, more even than how he quit smoking cold turkey after the first Andy’s Foundation golf tournament way back when — more than all of that, what’s most impressive to me — see, as a journalist, I’m used to people constantly trying to make themselves and their stories seem way better than they really are. But Kenney is just honest about himself. Brutally honest. If he wasn’t, this would be just another vanilla business biography, one where you see a guy go through some stuff but you only see it so that you can see how awesome he is for ultimately coming out on top.

Not Kenney, though. Yeah, he goes through some stuff, and yeah, he comes out on top, but that’s only a small part of this book. This is a story about what we all go through as human beings — this is a book that tells the story of a guy who for many years was very lost, and broken, and afraid, and he failed a lot, not only in business but also, but especially, in life and relationships, and so in a lot of ways he hurt people and hurt himself.

So, no, this book doesn’t show you a hero. It just a guy who by the end of it, to quote the last line in the book, you can look at and go, well heck, man, if this guy can do it, then I can do it.

This is a book about a real man with a Hollywood story at just the time — an anxious, paranoid, and cynical time — our country needs one, a story that says that no matter our past, our flaws, or our fears, the American Dream is still very real and very much alive.

The book will be out this December.