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Frayed Pride and Fried Pickles

One family built a little restaurant in Plaza Midwood called The Penguin. Three friends reinvented it. A neighborhood adopted it, then a city claimed it. They all thought they owned it. Then, one day last fall, all hell broke loose



This little restaurant, at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth in Plaza Midwood, was the talk of the city last fall.

Chris Edwards

(page 1 of 4)

Brian Rowe smokes. He hasn’t gone to get a new tattoo in six years, but there are already more than enough to cover his arms. He dresses like a greaser because he likes it—the wallet chain, the cuffed jeans, the rolled-up sleeves, everything. He calls himself a jarhead. He drove a tank during Desert Storm, then spent years working as a roofer. He was a bouncer at old Charlotte nightclubs like the Milestone and Mythos. He wrecked his motorcycle in 1996. He can show you where the bones came poking through the skin on his leg.

Want to make Brian Rowe cry? Ask him about the letter he got a couple years ago, when he was still running The Penguin. This kid, he says, moved here to go to UNC-Charlotte. Real shy guy, this kid. Just socially awkward. And then, he made a friend. They would meet at The Penguin once a week to talk about school and girls and whatever was bothering them. And slowly, the kid realized that he wasn’t so alone after all. He became, he said, the man he is today. With the letter, he included a ten-dollar bill. If you ever see another young college student in The Penguin, he wrote, buy him a beer. On me.

“That fucked me up, man,” Rowe says. His eyes tear up. He rocks back and forth on his chair. He takes a drag off his Camel. He needs a moment.

The space above the Diamond Restaurant, where Rowe is sitting and rocking and talking, is a big, open room full of all sorts of junk. The brick walls are painted green. The syrup canisters for the soft drinks are in the corner, napkins are on a shelf, and a few computers sit along the wall that holds up the red neon sign, the one you can see from Independence Boulevard. You can hear the music thumping from the jukebox downstairs, the same jukebox that used to be in The Penguin.

This is a bit of déjà vu for Rowe. The renovating. The painting. The loans. The long hours. The test runs. The new menu. Everything seems the same. Ten years ago, he was here in Plaza Midwood, putting his heart and soul and sweat into an old restaurant at 1921 Commonwealth Avenue called The Penguin. Now he’s doing it at 1901 Commonwealth at a place called the Diamond. Same street. Different old restaurant.

Ten years ago, Brian Rowe and his friend Jimmy King just wanted their own neighborhood joint at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth, the kind where you could stop in for a beer and a bite and a conversation. But the rest of the world eventually found out about it, and the rest of the world decided it wanted one of its own. Why shouldn’t there be more Penguins in other neighborhoods in other cities? It became obvious that the place was worth something. In the cigarette-fueled haze between the Pabst Blue Ribbons and the Big Block Burgers, people started to realize there was money to be made. Big money.

What came next was a mishmash of lawyers, trademarks, Facebook rage, frayed pride, and fried pickles. What came next was a debate between corporate and cool—a debate over the ownership of a name and the ownership of the things it stood for.

Brian Rowe thought The Penguin was his. He was right. And he was wrong.

Plaza Midwood is throbbing with barbershops and salons, tattoo parlors and pawnshops, and a record store selling vinyl. Bungalows sit on the streets behind Central Avenue, and in front, spread out over two square blocks, there are a dozen places to get a drink and a meal. There’s a Jamaican joint next to the art gallery that serves beer under Soul Gastrolounge, which is down the block from John’s Country Kitchen, across the street from Dish, which is across from Zada Jane’s. Thomas Street Tavern is in the old post office. There’s probably a band playing at Snug Harbor. In the outcropping at the end of the aisles of groceries and novelties at the Common Market, a guy in a powder-blue argyle sweater stands next to a skinny guy with enough tattoos to frighten a grandmother to death.

What came next was a debate between corporate and cool—
a debate over the ownership of a name and the ownership of the things it stood for.

The word for this, the word your parents would probably use, is “trendy.” Or “young.” Or “hip.” Plaza Midwood doesn’t want you to get dressed up. It wants you to put on your Carhartt jacket, your ratty button-down shirt, your stocking cap, your fishnet stockings, and your hot-pink extensions. It wants you to get out of your car and amble down the sidewalk. It wants you to roll up your sleeves to show off the art on your arms. It wants to make you proud to be dirty. It is where you go if you need to loosen up. If you need to prove you’re not stiff. It is where Charlotte goes to prove that it’s not Charlotte.

Plaza Midwood used to be grittier, full of addicts and criminals and lost jobs and 1950s glory faded into a dull 1970s taupe. That’s the neighborhood The Penguin Drive-In inhabited for most of its life. The long and narrow gray stone-and-brick building has been in the Ballentine family for fifty-seven years. Jim Ballentine was there for forty-seven of them, working seven days a week from 10 in the morning until the bleary hours of the night.

He came home from World War II with a Purple Heart, a Soldier’s Medal, and two Bronze Stars. He started working at the Nance Drug Store on Caswell, and met his future wife, Jean, on her first day working as a nurse at Mercy Hospital up the street. He said when he and Jean got married, they should open a restaurant. He said that on their first date: when we get married.

In 1954, at age twenty-eight, Ballentine borrowed money from his dad and bought an ice cream shop named The Penguin. He turned the white stucco building into a drive-in, complete with hot dogs and carhops and a soda fountain. Later he started serving beer. Jim and Jean lived in a house they’d bought next to Jim’s parents on East Fifth Street. Jean quit the hospital to work at the restaurant, and within two years Jim had worked hard enough to pay back his father. Five daughters came, and they became The Penguin’s family wait staff.

Jim Ballentine never advertised. He didn’t need to. He kept the beer cold. He kept the food cheap. People kept coming in. They kept coming back. They kept spreading the word.

At first, the place was clean, shiny, and new. But as the neighborhood started to get dirtier, so did The Penguin. In the seventies and eighties the drive-in became more dangerous. People broke in to steal beer and smokes. Jim made a rule: his daughters could still work there, but they had to be out by the time the sun went down.

One night, Jim shot a guy. This was in 1990, when he was locking up and some hoodlum came at him and Jim pulled out a pistol and fired and hit the guy in the shoulder. And later at the hospital, the guy confessed to breaking into The Penguin fifteen times in fifteen weeks. Ballentine was never charged with a crime. But he still had to keep replacing broken windows. People would break them to get in to steal smokes. Or beer. Or money. Some people would break them just to break them. Before he left every night, Jim would call Jean and leave the phone at The Penguin off the hook. Once he got back home, he would keep his phone nearby and listen for the glass to break.

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

Reader Comments:
Mar 29, 2011 06:07 pm
 Posted by  RaginBull

That whole thing was bullshit. But from everything I've heard and read, the Ballentines were much more in the wrong. The only real fault I can put on the guys was that they should've bought the name a long time ago.

Mar 30, 2011 07:44 am
 Posted by  AC

I used to eat at The Penguin, where else could you get such a delicious veggie burger, so I decided I would put aside my opinions of franchising the personality of a restaurant and give the new guys a chance....I am not a fan ....taste the "new" Penguin food and something is lost. The menu is a disappointment, the black bean veggie burger is a can of balck beans rolled into a ball and dropped on a bun. GROSS. And top that off with the new sweet potato fries, served with some mix of what seams to be mayo and bbq sauce, I did not like it. I wish them luck, it is just not for me.

I had never been to The Diamond until the guys reopened it and it was great, got the veggie burger and it was really good. The mac and cheese even better. And of course we make the trip to Pinky's weekly, those are some of the old Penguin folks and they did an amazing job. New menu and fresh ideas, delicious shrimp tacos! Everything on the menu there has been Yummy!

Mar 30, 2011 08:18 am
 Posted by  jon

Just goes to show how devoid of both culture and quality cuisine Charlotte is when people are still talking about a nasty hole in the wall that passed off plates full of grease as food.

May 14, 2011 09:26 pm
 Posted by  KTG

Had eaten at The Diamond for the first time on our anniversary last week and have frequented Pinky's a number of times since they opened. We love both and recommend to friends regularly.
I appreciate this extended article which was more objective & less emotional than some accounts I've read in the past. When it's all said and done, here's what I come away with in regards to the parties involved. To the brothers in arms, I am delighted that things have worked out for the new ventures and we will certainly reward our 10 years of former loyalty to both new restaurants.
As for the Penguin, well that's a different story. I have no interest or desire to ever set foot in the Penguin again. Reviews from friends & what I've read have been mixed at best. This started over money and franchising but if you can't make the flagship work, then chances of a chain of restaurants is nothing more than a pipe dream. The Penguin's success and/or failure should not count me into their equation. Stick a fork in The Bird, it may soon be done.

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