The Penguin Drive-In, which has been in the hands of owners Brian Rowe and Jimmy King for the last 10 years, will change ownership at the end of October.
Rowe and King will be moving about a block away to the Diamond Restaurant, which they are in the process of rehabbing, but Rowe told Creative Loafing leaving the Penguin is a shock.
“We have to go; they’re going to take over and we don’t know what they’re going to do,” Rowe said.
King and Rowe had signed two five-year lease agreements with the building’s owner, listed on the Mecklenburg County tax records as Ballentine Family Investments LLC. The current lease agreement was about to expire and Rowe said the building’s owners — who also own the name — came to him and King with an offer.
“We have no say in the matter, really. The offer they made us was unacceptable, and then they came back with a second offer that was even worse. It’s only so much you can do," Rowe said. "They own the building and the name, and they see that it is a very busy place, and they wanted to join up with us and we couldn’t do that.”
Rowe said he and his staff have to be out of the building by Nov. 1 and it will take about a week to clear their things from the current location. “We created this kind of thing, you know. When we got here the building was empty, and I pretty much played [general contractor] here. It didn’t start out busy here. The first year it was slow, the second year it was slow. Around the fourth year, things started to pick up and the sixth and seventh year we were very busy. Then that Food Network thing aired and we went nuts,” he said.
The Diamond — which Rowe, King and Andy Kastanas own — will open at the same time that The Penguin’s new owners take over. The change in ownership, which Rowe said made the rounds on Facebook after he told the staff of the plans of the building's owners, has already sparked an online effort to boycott the Penguin after Oct. 24.
“We did something special here, the whole city loves it. All walks of life, young, old, black, white ... everyone is very fond of the place. I don’t know what’s going to happen because I know it’s not the building that makes the place. It’s the people inside,” Rowe said. And when the current owners move, the staff is going to the Diamond with them, he said.
Rowe didn’t get into details about the offers the building’s owners made to him and his partner for legal reasons, but he did say that neither he nor King were interested in a Penguin franchise deal.
“We had a franchise deal on the table a while ago, but it didn’t work out. We’d lose too much control," said Rowe. "Money is important, of course, but when you go for the money, you lose something else.”
** UPDATE: Today (Sept. 21), a representative of Martin Sprock founder of Raving Brands e-mailed CL this statement:
Charlotte is not going to lose The Penguin.
Despite what you may have heard in the past 24 hours, The Penguin is not moving an inch, losing a bit of its character, charm or any of the wonderful things you have grown to love about this Charlotte landmark. The Penguin is the beating heart of Plaza-Midwood and has been an institution since 1954 when Jimmy Ballentine first opened the doors!
The Ballentine family has decided to give their restaurant a new lease on life while staying true to the dreams their family has always kept for The Penguin. Together with Martin Sprock who has unearthed such restaurant jewels as the Flying Biscuit and Moe’s and Greg Auten who was one of the original creators of the current Penguin menu, they are excited to make some structural updates that the Penguin has needed for some time.
The most important thing to the owners is keeping the soul and spirit of the Penguin as unchanged as it has been for the past 56 years. There will be the addition of a patio to allow for more seating and to enjoy the gorgeous Carolina weather. The bathrooms are going to be redone, a website will be built, but the idea of a cultural icon that serves the best food at great prices will never change.
Since the restaurant, name and logo belong to the Ballentines and some of the original staff is coming back, The Penguin is sure to keep the fan base happy with hits like the famous fried pickles, burgers and milkshakes. It will remain the spot where you are as likely to see a banking executive chowing down a bowl of Brunswick stew as you are to see a young family sharing a basket of onion rings.
Being traditional (and non-traditional) is the soul of this neighborhood and that means the world to the owners and staff. Sometimes, people move on to other ventures and business moves forward, but it should never change the passion that people feel for the food. The Penguin will always strive to provide the old favorites while keeping it fun and interesting on the menu.
People come and go. People talk a mile about a story. People love great food. Those things are always true, but sometimes change comes in a way that is unexpected and exciting. When all is said and done, The Penguin will still stand strong and still make the meanest food around. This landmark will never lose its place on the Charlotte map; it is simply going back to its original roots. This “Bird” is here to stay.
** RE-UPDATE: CL just received this press release; it seems to be more of an official word from Jimmy King and Andy Kastanas:
The Penguin Drive-In is changing ownership after 10 years of business in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. The popular restaurant was leased to current partners Jimmy King and Brian Rowe in 2000, who took the spot from relative obscurity to a thriving hotspot known for their handmade burgers and fried pickles. The Penguin has won numerous awards and received national recognition, including a feature on the Food Network’s series Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The building’s original owners, the Ballentine family, will not renew the current lease and will retain ownership in the building and the Penguin Drive- In name.
Partners King and Rowe have announced plans to provide many signature items in their new venture, The Diamond Restaurant. The Diamond is a joint venture that includes Andy Kastanas of Soul Gastrolounge. Located at 1901 Commonwealth, The Diamond is currently undergoing extensive renovations with plans to open as a 24-hour diner in late October.
Partner Jimmy King states, “We wish the Ballentine family the best in their endeavors and thank all of our patrons for 10 years of incredible loyalty. We remain firmly committed to this neighborhood. Regardless of The Penguin’s future, we will remain in Plaza Midwood and continue to provide the quality of food and service that we have since re-opening The Penguin in 2000.”
The Penguin Drive-In will cease to operate under the current ownership effective October 24th.
** RE-RE-UPDATED: We caught up with Penguin partner Greg Auten and he addressed the current controversy surrounding the change in the eatery's management:
“With all that’s in the news that’s going on, especially with them finding the killer of the girl that disappeared from Thomas Street, I was really upset that that was the main local Twitter thing that was going on," said Auten. "I thought that was a bit absurd. It’s just food after all. I was surprised, but we’ve always had a good following there, and people are passionate about things in their area.”
“Martin Sprock, owner of Raving Brands, has a deal with the Ballentine family that if they want to go nationwide or statewide or whatever that he would be the one to do it. For right now, it’s more or less the family wanting to restore the old Penguin. We just redid it 10 years ago, but that’s been a hard 10 years. They are way busier than what we built the place for. It’s taken a toll on the building, and they just want to upgrade it, maybe streamline it a little. Maybe put a patio outside, and get that one up and running — and then the one over here on Freedom and Morehead, then proceed from there and see how it goes.” The Penguin on Freedom and Morehead will be called The Penguin Drive-In Westside; Auten grew up on the westside, and he said he wanted to do something culinary on that side of town. He and his partners, Dave Rhames and Andy Cauble, will be 100 percent owners of the Penguin Westside and have stock in the Plaza Midwood location.
“I saw a lot of people on Facebook yesterday who have known me for a long time, and they know that I’m not greedy. And I’m far from a corporate-acting machine. People know that I’m not like that. What I’m trying to do is save the Penguin. The owners of the building, the Ballentine family, we’re just respecting their wishes and are trying to carry on the Penguin name in a good light. A lot of people see it as selling out, but whatever. I guess you could call it selling out but really, all we’re doing is trying to go back and give the same atmosphere and service feel and everything that we did for 10 years. I respect people’s opinions, and I would love to have the opportunity to talk to some of these people and let them know that just because you never really leave a certain area, life does go on outside that area. I understand the passion, but it’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”
** RE-RE-RE-UPDATED: According to Helen Schwab at The Charlotte Observer Greg Auten is out of the Penguin business and Pinky's is going to be Pinky's instead of The Penguin Westside.
"We are 100 percent Pinky's, nothing to do with the place over there... It happened last-minute last week; some legalities are preventing me from participating."
The grill, at Freedom Drive and Morehead Street, will be fast-casual, he says, with fish tacos, falafel ("I took some lessons with a guy from Israel, so they'll be authentic"), burgers, sandwiches and some "healthier items," such as salads. But will there be pickles? "That's still up in the air," he says.
More to come.