Penguin Drive-In owner: We’ll reopen Wednesday now

The owner of the Penguin Drive-In now says the landmark diner will reopen Wednesday, after a week-long closure that prompted speculation it had shut down permanently.

“We’ll be reopened tomorrow,” Lisa Ballentine said. “Yup, we sure will.”

Ballentine had initially said the restaurant would reopen Tuesday at 11 a.m. But in a message late Monday, she said that she now plans to reopen The Penguin on “Wednesday afternoon.” Ballentine didn’t give an exact time.

Her statement followed news reports that said the Penguin’s doors had been locked for several days.

On Monday, the lights were off, and the restaurant was locked at lunchtime. The restaurant’s phone rang, but there was no answering machine. A worker at a boutique across the street said the Penguin hasn’t been open in a week.

The restaurant, opened by Ballentine’s father, Jim Ballentine, in 1954 as an ice cream shop, has been through a turbulent few years. After a contentious ownership change in 2010, the business’s landlord sued the Penguin, claiming the restaurant owed more than $17,000 from an outstanding loan.

The business filed for bankruptcy in November, owing $140,000 in federal taxes.

In May, Ballentine and the Penguin suffered a setback when a federal judge threw out one of the bankruptcy filings for the business, ruling the business hadn’t paid necessary fees or filed required financial documents. At the time, Ballentine said the restaurant, located on Commonwealth Avenue, would stay open. Court records show the second bankruptcy case associated with the restaurant was dismissed last month.

But Ballentine said Monday that the real reason the Penguin has been closed for several days is simple and isn’t tied to the restaurant’s well-publicized disputes: A family member of one employee died in Raleigh last week, Ballentine said.

“I purchased him a train ticket and told him to stay as long as he needed,” she told the Observer. “We worked for a few days without the guy.” But being short-handed took a toll on the Penguin’s small staff.

“We were all getting burned out. I said, ‘Let’s just close. We all need a vacation,’ ” Ballentine said. She said she hasn’t closed the restaurant in years, and a week off provided much-needed rest.

Known for burgers and fried pickles, the Penguin has appeared on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and in the movie “Bad Grandpa.”

Heather Lamparter, who works across the street from the Penguin at Boris & Natasha Clothing Boutique, said she had worked as a waitress at the restaurant for several years. She said she and other workers at Boris & Natasha have been watching the restaurant’s decline in an impromptu “Penguin Watch” for several months to see if it would be able to stay open.

Just before noon Monday, a car cruised through the empty parking lot. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon were still lined up in a window next to the bar, but the neon “Open” sign was off. The car’s driver paused, looked and drove away.

Ballentine said she was surprised at the amount of attention the restaurant’s temporary closure has received. “I don’t know that other restaurant owners get this kind of scrutiny,” she said. “But it is what it is.”

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