CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Things are changing at a very popular Charlotte restaurant.
Some new owners are taking over "The Penguin" on Commonwealth Avenue. The restaurant has been in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood since 1954 and was renovated 10 years ago.
By Nov. 1, the current operators who renovated The Penguin will not run it any more. It will fall back into the hands of the Ballentine family, which has owned the building since the 1950s.
The back story: current operators Brian Rowe and Jimmy King, with chef Greg Auten, took over running The Penguin from Jim Ballentine about 10 years ago. The Ballentine family, however, kept ownership of the land, the name and the logo. Auten left about five months ago, around the time it was announced that Rowe and King were among partners purchasing the nearby (and nearly as iconic) Diamond restaurant. Auten says the split was amicable; it was clear the Ballentines didn't want to give up Penguin ownership, and "I wanted to have more of my own thing." Auten planned to open Pinky's at Freedom Drive and Morehead Street.
Enter Martin Sprock of Charlotte, founder of Raving Brands (a holding company that franchises Flying Biscuit and Monkey Joe's among others.) Sprock, who says he no longer operates Raving Brands, had approached the Ballentines about two years ago about franchising The Penguin, he says, and was rebuffed. But a few months ago, he says, the family approached him: Would he want to discuss it again?
Yes, he said, but only if Auten was in as "the brains of the kitchen."
Monday, Sprock said Auten was, in fact, in the deal, which Auten confirmed. Plans call for him to tighten the kitchen operation, along with renovations at the Commonwealth Avenue site to the tune of "hundreds of thousands of dollars," to prepare for franchising.
As Facebook posters fumed Monday about corporate takeovers and the potential loss of The Penguin's "soul" without Rowe and King, Sprock said: "It will be here another 50 years. Charlotte is not losing The Penguin."
Auten's site for Pinky's is now slated to become a Penguin, aiming to open in mid- to late-October.
(Helen Schwab of the Charlotte Observer contributed.)