Helen Schwab

The polarizing plight of the Penguin

This story originally ran Oct. 4, 2010.

In Charlotte, we get heated up about plenty: struggling schools, starving banks, sacked Panthers. But rarely is the hubbub as quick and visceral as the last few weeks’ flap around our Penguin.

And it is our Penguin, make no mistake.

To understand the furor, you must understand the plethora of Penguins that people mean when they discuss it. There’s the burger joint that got onto the Food Network, the decades-old family business, the resurrected urban oasis. There’s the place a franchisor thinks could work in 40 or 50 states, and the place fans deem the unreproducible figurehead of Charlotte funk.

But above all, there is the Penguin that is our city’s proof.

Proof that we respect the past, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. That we have something to stack up against national restaurant treasures. That we can put our bankers and musicians and bikers and soccer moms all in one room, with fried pickles and a killer jukebox, and all just get along.

Now, that Penguin, that vision of ourselves and our city, is in flux. The founding family has announced plans to franchise; the current operators say they’ll be gone after Oct. 24. Lawyers have been called, boycotts threatened and the Internet peppered with heartbreak and anger. Complex issues and various constituencies swirl around this funky little place in funky little Plaza Mdwood. If you haven’t followed every online update, and maybe if you have, you may wonder:

How did what’s happening with the Penguin come to stick in so many people’s craws?

History: The way we were

Jim Ballentine, a World War II veteran with a Purple Heart, bought the place with wife Jean in 1954, and expanded a ’40s ice cream shop into a drive-in. Ballentine was known for flipping burgers, wowing the Schlitz company with beer sales (10,000 cases a year in ’56 or ’57) and opening every Christmas.

His clientele came to include, as an Observer reporter wrote in 1995, a woman named Margaret who nestled at the bar in evening gown and rhinestone earrings, as well as businessmen and transvestites, south Charlotte ladies, addicts and day laborers. Customers brought in their own records for the jukebox. Regulars called themselves “the stockholders, “ but the Ballentines were clear on ownership: It would stay in the family - even when Jim decided to retire in 2000 at age 74.

By that time, he’d shot an intruder in 1990 and a regular had been found dead out back in ’93, hypodermic needles nearby. And Jean had been mugged two blocks away in ’95. They hung in as the neighborhood began to rebound, but by 2000, the family - Jim and Jean had five daughters - was ready for someone to take over.

Enter Jimmy King, then and now part of the Aqualads band, and Brian Rowe. They just wanted to run a bar, Rowe told Food Network star Guy Fieri.

Then they realized they had to serve food. So Rowe called Greg Auten, who had catered his wedding, and the deal was on. The three would renovate extensively - notably fixing the “skylight” in the men’s room ceiling - and offer a revamped diner menu with full bar.

The place reopened in 2001, with new jukebox and barstools, and fried pickles, sweet potato fries and soy dogs on the menu. Business soared after Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” episode in 2007. “They breathed new life into the Penguin, “ Ballentine’s daughter Lisa said in September.

So, when aficionados say it should stay the way it was, you have to ask: Which era?

Franchise: Sellout, or smart?

It was in 2007, the year Jim Ballentine died, that experienced Charlotte franchisor Martin Sprock first approached the Penguin, he said. Raving Brands, the company he had founded, had done deals with Moe’s and the Flying Biscuit, among others, and Sprock was a big fan of the Penguin.

A deal was discussed, but never happened. Details - such as scope - aren’t agreed upon. But Sprock says he kept in touch with the Ballentines.

Auten left (wanting “more of my own thing, “ he set out to open a westside place called Pinky’s) about five months ago; around then, Rowe and King bought into a second place: the Diamond, another neighborhood landmark. In September, the Ballentines declined to renew King and Rowe’s lease, agreeing to Sprock’s plan to bring Auten back, “tighten” the operation and prepare for franchising. Pinky’s would become the first additional Penguin.

The social media reaction was swift and vehement, falling into two categories - cookie-cutter Penguins would be a sin/crime/impossibility, or a simple business decision. “Mark my words, there will be little that is left of what we all know as The Penguin” versus “The Ballentines did exactly what any smart business person would do, look for a maximum return on their investment.”

Loyalty: Whose side you on?

When news that King and Rowe were leaving leaked - on Facebook - the ensuing blowback took everyone by surprise. “All of us freaked out, “ said Lisa Ballentine. Wags on Twitter coined “Penguingate.” Facebook postings and pages multiplied; the phones rang and TV cameras appeared.

Most online folks seemed loyal to King and Rowe personally. A guy in China Grove created a boycott page on Facebook, and thousands joined. When King and Rowe announced their decision to fight, mentioning “lawyers” with no more detail, many commenters celebrated, though some decried the effect of a fight on Jim’s widow, now in her 80s.

Do you back the guys who made it what it is today, or the family and franchisor, for the sake of the founder?

Pickles: On the menu?

No court filing had appeared by press time, but, citing “legalities, “ Auten says he’s now out of the deal, making Pinky’s once again Pinky’s. That is slated to open in a few weeks, and the presence of fried pickles on its menu - the ones that made Fieri swoon - is “up in the air.”

The Diamond should be opening about the same time. Pickles are part of the plan, so far.

Sprock has said the new Penguin will have a new patio and air conditioning. Maybe even ice cream. And, most certainly, the pickles.

Anyone who’s ever loved the Penguin, in any of its incarnations, will tell you: The place has never been just about what comes out of the kitchen. No one wins a fight over sliced dills and seasoned flour. The genius of the Penguin, the reason for the passion and the poison, is that folks come to feel it’s their own, to hold it dear and not to take it for granted.

And the question is: Whose Penguin will the Penguin be now?

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