It's been ten years since The Penguin blew up. What do we say about it now?
A decade after Charlotte's first social media controversy erupted over a restaurant, The Penguin is coming back. Sort of. I talked to the old owner about what that means for him. And for me.
The Penguin is the reason why I left Charlotte.
Stay with me here: In 2011, I was new to magazine writing. I’d put together a big piece on a blind hiker who’d finished the Appalachian Trail for Charlotte magazine. It won awards and did really well, but I was eager to prove that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Rick Thurmond, the editor at Charlotte at the time, asked me if I’d look into the mess at The Penguin. The short version was: The managers who’d breathed new life into an old burger joint were getting kicked out by the family that owned the building and the logo. Everybody was mad. Rumors were flying. It was a huge mess of hurt feelings, cold business decisions, and misinformation. See if you can untangle all of this, Rick said.
I spent a few months gathering up interviews and documents, piecing together timelines and trying to separate fact from fiction. I started writing, but my word count ballooned, and the story didn’t really seem to have a point. I’m stuck, I told Rick at some point. Rick, in his infinite wisdom, told me that I needed to pick out one single word that described the thing that was really going on. I threw out a few ideas, but Rick countered with a better one: ownership. Everybody thought they owned the place. The city. The managers. The landlords. The neighborhood. The regulars. After he said that, I knew exactly how to arrange the pieces of story into a complete narrative.
In April 2011, Charlotte magazine published “Frayed Pride and Fried Pickles.” Somebody at Our State magazine read it, emailed me, and asked me if I’d like to write for them sometime. I said yes. And then from there, things snowballed. I wrote for SB Nation, Politico, and CBS Sports. I ended up in Best American Sports Writing. I got confidence. In 2015, Our State offered me a full-time job writing for them, and so my family and I moved to Greensboro. From there, I traveled the state, writing stories and making podcasts.
So yeah, if you squint really hard, a hard-core Charlotte story punched my ticket to a life outside of Charlotte.
And yet, that story has followed me around for a decade. For a few years, whenever there was Penguin news, people would send it to me. Sometimes, I had a Penguin-related scoop. I was, for a time, the de facto Penguin beat reporter.
And so, it only made sense that on Friday night, at 9:30 p.m., my phone started to buzz with people sending me Penguin news.
The news was this: Martin Sprock, the guy who tried and ultimately failed to turn the original Penguin into a franchise ten years ago, was going to give it another shot. This time, he was going to do it in Dilworth, in an old Caribou Coffee that was once the most LGBTQ-friendly place on East Boulevard. The place would have all of the old Penguin standbys, like burgers and fried pickles, but also new stuff like, uh, ramen. “We decided, let’s take the favorite things we liked about the Penguin and leave the rest behind,” Sprock told the Charlotte Business Journal. “We’ll do it right.”
For one thing, I puzzled over the logic of releasing an exclusive story on a Friday night, which is precisely the time you publish something that you don’t actually want people to read. But for another, I thought to myself, okay, what do I do with this information?
So, I did what I usually do when there’s Penguin news. I called up Brian Rowe.
I had to wait until the afternoon, when Brian got home from his roofing job. The last time I’d heard from him was two years ago, when he called me out of the blue to tell me about his new idea: The Bird Bones Cafe. Basically, it was going to be the Penguin, but just in a different spot, with a different logo. Same people, same food though. Brian was one of the managers who took over the Penguin in 2000, and slowly made it into a place that was authentic to who they were, and what the neighborhood once was. (Side note here: I wrote another little Penguin story two years ago about what authenticity even means in a place like Charlotte, which touches on a lot of the same stuff I’m talking about today.) But after I talked to Brian in 2019, the idea sort of faded. Publicly, anyway. Brian says he was just waiting out COVID, and looking for a better spot. Location, he said. That’s what makes or breaks a restaurant.
But as for the rest of it, it wasn’t going to be like the old Penguin. It was going to be as close to an exact copy as possible. Jukebox. Wood paneled walls. Black and red checkered floor. Same food. Everything. What’s the business plan? “The Penguin is my business plan,” he said.
I asked him if he’d heard the news. What news, he said. About Sprock taking the Penguin name and using it for a new restaurant on East Boulevard. He thought for a second. “Make sure people know it ain’t me,” he said.
The rest of the conversation went exactly like the other conversations I’ve had with Brian over the years. His brain was moving a mile a minute. He swore a lot (he served in the Marine Corps). He won’t sell out, he said, over and over. “I will get fucked over and not take the money, just to stay true to myself,” he said.
And yet, he couldn’t stop talking about The Penguin. Things have obviously changed since he lost the place. Both he and Jimmy King sold their stake in The Diamond, their follow-up restaurant. Brian is on Facebook now, in a very low-key way. He’s working construction again, just like he used to. He got divorced. He just turned 51 a month ago.
But in some ways, things exactly the same. Someday, Bird Bones is gonna work, he said, because Charlotte is still the same as it was back in the Penguin days. “Lotta yuppies, but also a lot of blue collar scumbags like me,” Brian said. He doesn’t know where it would go, just yet. Maybe off of North Graham somewhere, in one of Charlotte’s less-shiny neighborhoods. Definitely not South Charlotte. Probably not Plaza Midwood. It’s too saturated now. “I’m kinda of sick of it,” he said.
Brian couldn’t really process the new version of The Penguin, which I understood. After all, he’d only learned of its potential existence 15 minutes before. He wasn’t a fan of Martin Sprock, to put it mildly. But he seemed to be viewing everything through the lens of what was, instead of what is. “The building was a body, the inside was the soul,” he said of the old Penguin, the thing he wants to re-create in a different place with a different name. “We brought the soul to it.”
I asked him why The Penguin still mattered, ten years later. Maybe because after bopping around for years before and after — working as a bouncer here, installing flooring there — the decade at The Penguin represented a period in his life where he was in control. "It’s the first thing I did that was a big hit,” he said. It worked. Why wouldn’t you want to go back to the thing that worked?
I hung up with Brian and thought, okay, what do I do with this? Like, with this information I now have? Talking with Brian gives you a lot of stuff to fact-check, a thing that I remembered from our conversations ten years ago. Did I want to do that again? Maybe I should call Martin, I thought. It seems, at least from the reading of his quotes, that he’s still the same Martin, willing to use a familiar logo to try and create a more mainstream restaurant. But, do I want to go there, again? And would Bird Bones or the updated Penguin work in modern Charlotte? I’ve been gone for six years now, and the city keeps adding people and buildings at a rapid clip. The Charlotte I knew is largely gone. I have no plans to move back. The places that made it special to me have mostly vanished. When it comes to The Penguin, what authority do I have to handicap its odds of success?
Plus, I’m not the 30-year-old me who stayed up until 4 in the morning for weeks to write that story. I’m a married father of two now who gets sleepy at 9, who’s more normcore than hardcore (if I ever was). I can’t do what I used to do, which is drive up to Plaza Midwood, hang out, talk, and think. I’m too tired, and I’m too far away.
I can only analyze what’s happening from afar now, in both time and space. In some ways, The Penguin controversy was the first Charlotte controversy fueled by social media. And, to me, it represented a turning point that represented what sort of city Charlotte was comfortable being. Back then, I framed it as a battle between what’s corporate and what’s cool. Now, I think, what’s corporate largely decides what’s cool.
To that end, I don’t know whether New Penguin will work, and what that will say about Charlotte now. Other people, smart people, will get to write that story and figure it out. The only thing that’s clear to me is that there are two men who each have a piece of something that was once special, and are trying to put it back together without the crucial missing half. Martin knows the power of a strong brand. Brian knows the importance of building a tight-knit community. But neither guy is gonna work with the other, and the old building over on Commonwealth isn’t up for sale, so The Penguin as it used to be is just a memory at this point. Maybe there’s some value left to be squeezed out. Or not.
I know, I’ve just written hundreds of words about it. But maybe I need to just let The Penguin go too.
Here’s a confession: I never went to The Penguin all that much. I lived about a mile from SouthPark Mall for most of my ten years in Charlotte, and I ended up at Moosehead and Sir Edmond Halley’s quite a bit. When I would go up to Plaza Midwood, I mostly hung out at Thomas Street Tavern. I did stumble over to The Penguin a handful of times, though, usually to get some late night food to soak up the alcohol. Also, as we have discussed before, I am not really a pickle person, fried or otherwise.
And yet, if someone puts up a journalistic tombstone on my grave, it’ll say something like “Here lies Jeremy, he wrote about Dick Trickle and The Penguin.”
But even though I wrote about ownership of The Penguin, I never felt any personal ownership in the place myself. Rather, I felt ownership over this story, this thing that I created, this thing that led me to so many other places. Returning to that story is like returning to my hometown. You see things that really bring back some nostalgia, but looking at the place where you grew up ten or twenty years later really makes you see a familiar place with fresh eyes. You can’t re-live the life you lived. You can’t go back. All you can do is learn from it. Build on it. And keep going.
In one word: Onward.
The Plaza Midwood Library Branch is in need of a shot of the image featuring the sign. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks.
nicely written.. thank you!