The End of The Penguin
Auctioning off old times at a Plaza Midwood landmark
THE LAST TIME I talked to Brian Rowe was about four years ago, just after a nasty episode that forced him and Jimmy King out as managers of the Penguin Drive-In in Plaza Midwood. The short version of a very long and angst-laden story is this: A guy named Jim Ballentine opened the Penguin as a burger joint in 1954 and ran it mostly by himself for decades. The onset of Alzheimer’s led his family to find King and Rowe to run the place in 2000. The new managers turned a rundown little restaurant into an edgy, tattoo-filled, PBR-serving, pickle-frying hangout. Guy Fieri came. People lined up to get in. At the peak of its popularity, in 2010, Ballentine’s daughter, Lisa, took control of the Penguin back from Rowe and King. People in the neighborhood reacted by turning their backs on a place they’d loved for a decade. King and Rowe revamped the Diamond Restaurant down the street, and the crowd followed them.
Since I wrote about the saga for this magazine in 2011, the Penguin’s financial troubles multiplied, and court records show fighting within the Ballentine family over how it was being run. In July, the power was cut off. Two bankruptcy cases were thrown out of court. The Penguin abruptly closed, and despite excuses and promises from Lisa Ballentine, she turned over the keys during the second bankruptcy proceeding.
Many people have considered the Penguin dead for a few years. Not totally dead. Just mostly dead. There are two guys in town who have been stockpiling interviews and footage since 2010 to make a Penguin documentary. They call me from time to time, asking what’s new. They want to know if The End has come. Not yet, I’ve always told them. It’s close. But not yet.
The landlord said he’d hold two auctions the first week in January. One would be for the stuff inside the restaurant: tables, chairs, refrigerators, and pictures. The other would be for the Penguin trademark itself. “That’s our bird,” Rowe said when I called. King’s version replaced a more cartoony drawing used by the family. “Theirs was fucked-up looking,” he told me.
These days, the 44-year-old Rowe finishes hardwood flooring during the day but still owns a 25 percent stake in the Diamond (Jimmy King got out a few years ago). It’s going OK, the former Marine says in a gruff voice. But when he starts speaking about the Penguin, he suddenly has a lot to say. “If I could go back and be there 50-50 with Jimmy, I would,” he said. He’d put everything back like it was before. His customers would come back. It’d be just like old times, he said. “I just don’t see any downside to it.”
I told him about the auction, and he immediately perked up. I’ll call the guy, he said. But you talk to the landlord, too, he told me. See what you can find out. See if there’s a chance.
I don’t broker business deals, but I hung up and called the landlord anyway. The auction was over, he said. There was deal in place for a yet-to-be-named person or company to buy the building and the equipment inside, but not the trademark. I asked directly: “So the Penguin isn’t coming back to 1921 Commonwealth?” No, he said.
I called Rowe back a few minutes later and told him. “Huh,” he said, flatly.
He started making excuses. It wasn’t the building that made the place special, he said. Maybe it could work in another place. Who knows?
But I finally knew. That’s it. That’s The End.
We all react differently when The End comes. The documentary guys? Maybe they’ll finally edit together a film. The Ballentines? Maybe the exasperation over a family legacy is over. The neighborhood? Maybe the schadenfreude is finally complete. Me? Maybe I don’t need to be writing about the Penguin anymore.
I figured the huh meant The End had come for Rowe, too. He asked about the trademark. The landlord was going to hang onto it, I said, but he might sell it one day.
“Maybe I should start thinking of the price tag of that name,” Rowe said. For him, The End might be The Beginning.