UPDATE 9/10/19: Rowe has suspended his GoFundMe campaign to revive the Penguin Drive-In as Bird Bones Cafe. He posted this update on the fundraiser page in late August: “Due to circumstances beyond my control I will not be able to do this project in this space. This is why I’m shutting down this GoFundMe. I will definitely be doing this project elsewhere. Carlos Espin and I are great friends and will continue to work together.” The $50,000 campaign (originally launched for $150,000) had raised $2,185 from 33 donors.
Former Penguin Drive-In owner Brian Rowe and his team have been working on a new plan to revive his legendary Charlotte restaurant for about two years.
Rowe and his business partner Jimmy King operated the beloved Plaza Midwood diner from 2000 to 2010. It originally opened in 1954 and owner Jim Ballentine passed the management to the pair upon retirement.
Rowe, King and head chef Greg Auten brought “The Bird” back to life, making it a gritty neighborhood destination with a fiercely loyal fanbase. Even Guy Fieri rolled through town for a feature on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
In its final year, Rowe says the Penguin grossed $1.4 million in sales, but that success came to an abrupt halt when Ballentine’s daughter reclaimed control of the family restaurant for a potential franchise opportunity. The guys were forced out, faithful diners boycotted the new management and the restaurant fell into disarray.
Rowe and King went around the corner to revamp The Diamond and Auten was already in the process of opening Pinky’s Westside Grill.
That was nearly a decade ago, but Rowe, a Marine veteran and construction worker by day, hasn’t stopped thinking about the Penguin since.
Now he’s ready to give it another go with a new concept in a hundred-year-old house in Optimist Park.
Rowe’s new restaurant is named Bird Bones Cafe, a play on the remnants of the death of the Penguin, and will feature a skeleton penguin logo in honor of the iconic sign that still stands at the original building.
It’s taking shape in a century-old home on the property at Area 15, an eclectic small business hub just outside Uptown and across the street from Optimist Hall. Charlotte coffee heavyweight Not Just Coffee, now boasting a stacked lineup of six locations, got its start here back in 2011.
Rowe wants to replicate the original restaurant as closely as possible. “When you walk in here, you’re gonna think you’re in the Penguin,” he said. “It’s gonna be identical.”
The approximately 1600-square-foot home will feature classic Penguin design elements from the signature black and red checkered floor to the vintage jukebox that was relocated to The Diamond.
“If it’s on the radio, it’s not on the jukebox,” Rowe, a self-proclaimed punk rocker, said matter of factly.
He’ll have roughly the same amount of seating he had at the Penguin, about a dozen barstools and tables, plus a lounge area, outdoor patio and picnic tables on the front lawn.
They’ve been chipping away at the project for the last couple years but Rowe needs some capital to reach the finish line.
With much of the structural work on the house complete, he’s launched a $150,000 GoFundMe campaign to complete the project.
“Here we are now, almost 10 years since we left, (which was not our idea), and I’d like to do it again with your help,” the fundraiser description reads.
It’s an ambitious project that will rely heavily on the support of a community that’s since dispersed over the last decade.
The old Penguin building has passed through different hands since Rowe moved on. Comida, an upscale Mexican restaurant from the team behind littlespoon, opened there in 2016 and closed the following year to relocate. And it’s currently home to N.C. Red, the latest concept from respected local restaurateur Bruce Moffett. But Rowe hasn’t been back to see the changes.
“I’ve never stepped foot in that building since I left,” he said.
But if all goes according to plan, he’ll have his own nostalgic replica soon enough. Rowe says he’s shooting for a late 2019 or early 2020 opening for Bird Bones Cafe.