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


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Drug deals went down at the pay phone in the parking lot. A regular was found dead out back, surrounded by needles. Police said if you were looking for a guy who broke into a house or a store, you’d start by looking at the guys who showed up at The Penguin.

The place itself began to fall apart. There was a gaping hole in the roof above the men’s room. Regulars called it the skylight.

Everything changed. Jim Ballentine never did. At least not until the end, when he started to get sick. His daughters looked at him at work. Something wasn’t right. It was the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease. It was the beginning of the end.

By the time Ballentine retired, the once-cute little drive-in was rotting away. Four of the five daughters were married with kids. Nobody had the time or money to keep the place going. Nobody could work the seven-day-a-week schedule their dad had endured to keep the place open.

In 1999, Hope Nicholls had just opened Boris & Natasha, a high-priced hipster hangout of a clothing store that sits in the old library across the street from The Penguin. She saw the place close. She saw it sitting empty. Then she saw a sign go up in the window. The Penguin was up for rent. She called a couple guys she knew. “If you respect their dad’s vision of that restaurant,” she told them, “you guys will get it.”

Brian Rowe’s wife, Chrissy, had just opened Bang Bang, a hair salon up the street on Central. A guy named Jimmy King was dating a girl who worked there. Rowe had been a Marine. King had been in the Air Force and played in a surf band. They became friends. And then, Rowe says, they both got the big idea. “We were sitting around a crappy above-ground pool in the backyard and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have your own bar or something?’ ”

Then they got the call from Nicholls.

In August of 2000, Rowe and King agreed to lease the building and the name from the Ballentine family. Then they went to work to make it theirs.

***

King and Rowe didn’t want to run a restaurant. They just wanted to open a bar. They quickly found out that for them to serve beer, zoning rules said they also had to serve food. Rowe called Greg Auten, the guy who catered his wedding, to make the menu and work the kitchen. Over eight months, the guys borrowed money and put it into a new roof and a red-and-black checkerboard floor. They sanded down the old pine walls. They brought in new equipment for the kitchen.

They brought in something else. Call it Americana with an edge. “We wanted to make it authentic,” King says. “We didn’t want to make it like Happy Days. We didn’t want the Marilyn Monroe and the Elvis Presley vibe. ’Cause in the fifties they were current. That’s like putting, you know, Miley Cyrus in there nowadays. It would be cheesy.”

King worked during the day. He updated the logo, turning it from cartoony and quaint to sleek and modern. He did the payroll. He crunched the numbers. The big Fourth of July celebration? The one with the bands and all the people? That was him.

Rowe worked nights and had to create what he and King really wanted: a dive bar that wasn’t threatening. Sure, some troublemakers would still come in. But they’d clean up their act when Brian Rowe was around, both in the restaurant and out on the streets. Car break-ins dropped after he started patrolling the parking lots. He became a one-man neighborhood watch.

At first, people in bands would come. They’d tell their friends. They came back. Music was a big part of it, King says. People would sit around and pop some money into the jukebox to listen to doo-wop, country, or punk. The Penguin became the island of misfit Charlotteans, welcoming everybody, no matter what they looked like. “What we wanted to do,” King says, “was make it so the people who didn’t like uptown and didn’t like Ballantyne had a place to go.”

It took three years of seven-day workweeks to pay off the loans. It took five years before the place got consistently busy. Nicholls saw it all happen from the window of her store across her street. The food and beer weren’t bad. But that wasn’t the biggest draw. “People just wanted to hang there,” she says.

Take Courtney Thomas, for example. In 2005, she and her boyfriend, Mike, moved into a place off Commonwealth and started showing up at The Penguin. They went every Friday night. They wouldn’t even discuss it after a while. They would just come home from work, change clothes, and go.

Courtney and Mike got hitched at the courthouse last April. Right afterward, they all went down to The Penguin. Somebody dropped off champagne (the Bird didn’t sell it), and both families—who had never met—sat in the big back corner booth for two or three hours and got to know each other. Later that night on the dry-erase board, above the fish special, a handwritten message congratulated Mike and Courtney’s new life together. “Yay!” she said. “We made it above the fish!”

Waitresses started inviting Courtney to their baby showers. She and Mike would go on road trips and before they’d go home, they’d stop in for a drink at The Penguin. At first, you could just walk into the place and get a table. Later on, when it started getting really busy and most people had to wait, Courtney and Mike always seemed to end up at the front of the line. They kept showing up every Friday night. “We worked hard to get cred in that bar,” she says.

They both always liked the good food and cheap beer, but they came back for the people. They met friends there. They were always treated well by the waiters and bartenders. It became home. “I always felt more myself there than anywhere else,” she says. “I have a bunch of tattoos and a ‘Go fuck yourself’ attitude, and it’s nice to go somewhere where they appreciate that.”

And this was how, slowly but surely, with people like Courtney and Mike Thomas, The Penguin sprouted a soul. Every day more people came in, and every night more people kept coming back and hanging around.

The people who came by in March 2007 ruined any chance that The Penguin would remain Charlotte’s little secret.

“It was a blank canvas,” King says. “And over the years as we won awards, we’d put them up. That place became ours. It wasn’t ours when we got it, obviously. But every day, every week, every month, every year, it grew. It was its own thing after a while. It was bigger than me and Brian.”

People from Plaza Midwood were always there. Then folks from Ballantyne started coming up more often. Same thing with folks from up north near Lake Norman and University City. The waits got longer.

The people who came by in March 2007 ruined any chance that The Penguin would remain Charlotte’s little secret. A production company from Minnesota showed up with Guy Fieri in tow, and the bleached-blond spiky-haired host proceeded to rant and rave about Greg Auten and his fried pickles and pimento cheese. On May 7, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives aired at 10 p.m. on the Food Network, featuring a sunglassed Fieri rolling up to The Penguin in a convertible and eating everything inside.

Fieri and his crew got a lot of footage, enough for a seven-minute segment. They showed a guy eating a Full Blown Hemi, the biggest burger on the menu. They showed Fieri shoving black bean hummus and corn dogs into his mouth. Fieri would chew for a while, the wheels turning in his head. Then he’d say, “Oh. That’s good.”

For the first time, the food became the star. People started driving in from other states just to get a meal. Ned Brownlow, a bartender, remembers talking to Rowe one night in Liar’s Corner, the spot behind the front counter near the bathrooms. They gawked at the crowds. The show, Ned told him, was the best thing that could have happened to the restaurant. It was also the worst thing that could have happened to the bar.

The Penguin became a tourist attraction. One of Brownlow’s friends started calling it Penguinland. The regulars came less often, and they competed for space with folks from other towns and other states. There used to be a lull between lunch and dinner. After Fieri’s visit, there was a line out the door seven days a week.

The Penguin and its spinning, glowing sign on the corner turned into a brand, and more and more people wanted a piece of this thing that King and Rowe had created. “I’m sure they would look back on it as being naive now,” says Brownlow. “But neither one of them ever expected it to be something that would be a franchisable entity.” But it was. And Martin Sprock knew it.

***

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