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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In 1955, a year after Jim Ballentine bought The Penguin, a quarter of all the money spent on food in America went to restaurants. Today it’s almost half. If you want to go out for a drink or a meal in North Carolina, you have roughly 16,000 places to choose from. The competition is fierce. An Ohio State University study shows one in four fail in their first year. Within three years, about 60 percent either close or change ownership.

The ones that last don’t last forever. Their owners get old. They get tired of it. Or forced out. Bought out. Bulldozed. The Athens Restaurant is gone, replaced by a Central Piedmont Community College parking garage. Anderson’s and its pecan pie was replaced by a Starbucks, which closed. Fat City Deli, the place that gets the credit for turning NoDa into a destination, has been flattened. Condominiums are there now.

In Charlotte, historic is being replaced with corporate. The Coffee Cup, Charlotte’s first integrated restaurant, was torn down in 2009 to make way for a Beazer housing development that never materialized. The only thing that remains is the sign. You can go visit it at the Gantt Center if you want.

Amid the shiny skyscrapers and strip malls, Charlotte is coming to grips with the fact that it’s losing the places where you can feel its history with your bare hands. You cannot build something new and call it historic. You cannot transplant a soul. After the original was razed, the Coffee Cup reopened in two new locations. They both failed.

The city was losing the restaurants that kept it from feeling like any other town. The Penguin belonged to Charlotte. And when it changed, Charlotte felt like, as an owner, it had to speak up.

The Penguin didn’t go away, of course, at least not forever. But it has a split personality now: historic and corporate. Most nearby businesses are independent. Most of the people who own them say they hope The Penguin does well. It brings people into the neighborhood, they say. And they leave it at that.

The closing was like a bad breakup. A few weeks after Rowe and King left, someone threw a landscaping brick through the glass in the front door, and for the first time in years a Ballentine had to change out a broken window at the Penguin. Lisa said people started to threaten her. They would scream at her. They’d flip the bird at the Bird. One guy said she’d better not find herself alone.

Lisa walks out at night sometimes and wishes her dad were still there to protect her. She says she’s going to keep working hard. She and Sprock are co-owners now. She wants to make the business better and more efficient. “I just don’t want anybody to hurt me in the process,” she says. She wishes all the attention on her would go away. Ballentine family photos cover the walls of The Penguin. Not one of them is of Lisa.

***

The Penguin reopened on a Saturday in mid-January. Police sat out front, just in case somebody returned with another brick.

Inside, the place was packed, even during the nebulous midafternoon time slot between lunch and dinner. A waitress remarked that she’s still learning how to get around inside. The tables and chairs and layout were all new to her.

The red and black checkerboard floor is the same, definitely. The place got a new coat of paint. The metal “barbecue” sign is still up. The stickers on the hood in the kitchen look sort of the same. The food is sort of the same. Some of it is healthier. The fried pickles are now the Famous Penguin Fried Pickles™.

The jukebox looks about the same, too. “I don’t think people can really tell the difference,” Sprock says.

The first few days are busy. Very busy. Bruton Smith, the billionaire Charlotte Motor Speedway owner, has already stopped in. Sat right there in the corner booth. He’s been coming for years. “He’s a freak on fried pickles,” Sprock says.

It’ll be six months or a year before Martin Sprock will know whether The Penguin can be a franchise, but it’s clear that the place is a restaurant now, and not a nighttime hangout. At 9:30 on the Monday after the opening, the place is deserted.

Sprock doesn’t talk about one of The Penguin’s many new menu items. It’s called the Diamond Dog. The description: “Comes with nothin’.”

“You’ve got to have thick skin to get involved in someone else’s creation,” Sprock says. He has a PR guy and a marketing guy to fight back against the forces of Facebook. He hopes people will put the past behind them and judge the place on its food. “It’s business,” he says. “We sell hamburgers. Don’t make it any more than it really is. We’re still a hamburger joint.”

He says he wishes the Diamond well. He doesn’t talk about one of The Penguin’s many new menu items. It’s called the Diamond Dog. The description: “Comes with nothin’.”

***

A few weeks later at the Diamond, hipsters, guys in ties, and little old ladies are lined up outside on a warm and sunny February morning. King unlocks the front door to the public for the first time. He sticks his head out. He smiles. “Hey, guys, how you doin’?” he says. “Come on in.”

Soon, there’s a wait. The kitchen gets backed up. It takes about an hour to bring out a Big Block Burger. This is more intense than the test runs that Rowe and King held for family and friends. It took years for The Penguin to build a big following. At the Diamond, their following is there on the first day, waiting in line, looking in the windows, sitting on the benches.

The lunch crowd on Day One is a mix of the old Diamond regulars and the old Penguin regulars and the people who just wanted to stop in and see what all the Facebook and Twitter hype was about. A lot of the staff came with the guys. The menu is largely what the old Diamond’s was: Southern cooking with a bit of Greek influence, a tip of the cap to Jerry Pistolis, the old owner. There are some old favorites from the old Penguin, like the Winky Dinky Dog and Full Blown Hemi. The Ballentines didn’t put up a fight about it.

There’s also a Diamond Dog on the menu, a foot-long chili dog with mustard and onions. “Comes with a history,” it says.

People come in and look around. They look at the new wallpaper and the retro light fixtures and the shiny blue booths. They look to see if they recognize their waitress or the bartender. They check the menu to see if their favorite thing is still on it. They instantly start comparing this place to the old Diamond. Or the old Penguin.

But after a while, they settle back in to their routine. They talk about the food. About their day. About the weather. About business. About whatever it is people talk about over a table in a restaurant.

That night, more people keep showing up. A hair stylist looks on from across the street. The Penguin. The Diamond. That’s all he ever hears about anymore, he says.

You would figure, then, that the people in charge would know exactly what made The Penguin what it was. They’d know why so many regulars came back. Why it merited so many news stories and gossip when it closed and reopened. Everybody can point to the food, the service, and the atmosphere. But plenty of places have that.

There has to be something else. Right? Lisa Ballentine thinks it has to do with a sense of belonging. She thinks it’s the mix of people who came into her father’s restaurant; the doctors who sat next to the bikers and, maybe, could imagine what it was like to live that other life. “There’s that part of us,” she says, “that wants to belong to that other side.”

Hope Nicholls doesn’t eat fried food. She never ate at The Penguin. But she loved it. The place felt alive. Customers can always see that. “If they have soul,” she says, “they know a business has soul.” To her, Rowe and King owned the place. To her, Plaza Midwood owned the place.

A few years ago, Brian Rowe heard something that shocked him. “People were moving to this neighborhood,” he says, “because The Penguin was in this neighborhood.” Think about that. They moved here. For a restaurant. He knows he and Jimmy King created something. He can’t quite put his finger on it.

It has to be the people, he says. It has to be the customers. The staff. The regulars. Rowe used to be terrible with names. Now he never forgets them. He remembers Courtney and Mike. He hasn’t seen them come in to the Diamond yet. Maybe they’ll stop by over the weekend. Maybe she and Mike will make a date out of it.

If you see Courtney there, ask her to sweep back her red hair. There, behind her ear, is a tattoo of The Penguin. She’s thinking of getting a new one right under it. She already knows what it’s going to say:

R.I.P. 10-24-10.

Jeremy Markovich is a writer in Charlotte and a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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