As seen on The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives"
and The Traveler's Channel's "Man vs Food"

About Penguin Drive-In Charlotte, NC

He had just turned 18, that spring of 1944

Jim Ballentine - Founder of the Penguin Restaurant CharlotteAt a time he should have been finishing his senior year at Charlotte’s Central High school, he was a freshman in the Army’s School of Paratroopers. The world was at war, and his destiny lay before him. Before he would see another spring in his quaint Elizabeth neighborhood, he would be a witness and a participant in history. He would visit Hell, and behold that unique display of bloody human slaughter reserved for those innocents we send to fight in our wars. He would see his buddies maimed, and his best friends blown apart. He would take his orders to march hungry and cold through the frozen fields of France and Belgium, to a small remote village called Bastogne.

We can only imagine the hearts and minds of the brave and valiant young men who held that small foreign town against overwhelming odds. The world watched silently at what was viewed to be a pivotal battle for the Allied Forces. Surrounded and snow covered, with no food or supplies, the young GI’s of the 101st Airborne refused to surrender. “Nuts,” their leader simply said. Many, like him, were merely teenagers- destined to suffer debilitating frozen hands and feet or worse. Many were wounded. Many died. But among those young fighting men, an inner metal was forged. Surrender was out of the question. In the name of freedom and democracy, against all odds, they stubbornly held their heroic own at The Battle of The Bulge, and changed the course of WWII.

He was among the few to survive Bastogne. His name was Jim Ballentine.

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After the war, the Army sent him back to Charlotte with the Soldier’s Medal, The Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, and other honors. An unassuming hero, he quietly went on with his life, living with his Mom and Dad on East Fifth Street, and working at The Nance Drug Store on Caswell Road… Destiny soon dealt another fateful card when a pretty, dark haired student nurse from Mercy Hospital strolled into that drugstore on her first day in Charlotte. Jean remembers seeing Jim and falling in love at first sight. Though he would never ask her to marry him, he must have felt the same way. On their first date he simply said, “When we get married…” Jean says she simply nodded because she knew they would. But times being a little different then, she still would not let him kiss her until the third date. They vowed “ Til death do us part” in 1951. To a small town boy and girl in those days, the words had unquestionable meaning and finality. They bought a small, white wood house next to Jim’s parents, only a few blocks from the drug store where they met.

In short order, they settled in to raise a family. In 1954, they bought a small ice cream shop at the corner of Commonwealth and Thomas Avenues. It was white stucco, with a soda fountain and a few small tables inside. It was called “The Penguin”, and it was perfect. When Jim stood in the doorway of his little soda shop, the street in front was a dirt road. There was a large sand lot across the street, and much of the neighborhood was still part of a dairy farm. But he was a young man, with dreams and a vision. People in the community respected and liked him. The neighborhood was an up and coming place. He would be a vital part of it.

In what was to become a personal; trademark of deep rooted Scottish resolve and economy, Jim worked long hours to make his new business profitable. Jean left her nursing career to work beside him, and in a remarkable two years the business was paid off. Shortly afterward, they expanded the dining room, added beer, and curb service. They also began having children, with the first four born at nearby Mercy Hospital.

It was the Endless Summer, the Happy Days era of our community, and The Penguin was the hip place to see or be seen by the young set. Music played on outdoor speakers. Convertibles lined the parking lot. And anyone looking for trouble would not stay long at The Penguin. Jim would either toss them head first out the door, or send them over to the sand lot to settle their differences.
The neighborhood was different then.

At the Plaza Theater on Central Avenue you could see movies for a quarter. The East Branch Library and The Post Office were right across the street. Good friends Junior and Millie Wong operated The Hoy Toy Restaurant, and served a packed house until the wee hours of the night. Dick Holiday ran the pool room on Thomas Avenue. A young Betty Zeigler opened a dress shop which would clothe a generation of prom queens and brides. Newsman John Kilgo is among a host of well known Charlotteans whose early job experiences include waiting a few tables at The Penguin.

The world was different then. Kids from as far away as Myers park could safely ride their bicycles to The Penguin to get soft ice cream or a hot dog. With or without cash, Jim would feed them on an honor system. On Saturday, Dads would faithfully come and pay the tabs, and perhaps stay for a cold beer or two. You could leave the keys in your car while you went inside, in those days. It was a small town world where neighborhood mothers like Tina Mulligan could call The Penguin business phone anytime and talk to her son, Pat. Wives could leave grocery lists for husbands who weren’t even there. If you owed somebody money, you could just leave it at the bar. Everyone you knew would eventually show up at The Penguin.

Penguin Drive-InIn the early 1960’s, Jim’s business continued to expand, and experience the changing morays of the times. On any given afternoon, local business men would be three and four deep at the bar, vying for position with the neighborhood regulars. As most recall, hippies with long hair were not particularly welcome, but peaceful co-existence was the unwritten rule. They had to hire on extra cooks to take care of all the business then. No one could count the number of hamburgers and French fries or boxed chicken dinners they sold. Beer distributors did count the cases of beer, however, and one year gave Jim a plaque for out selling everyone in the Southeast region.

The “North Charlotte” crowd that started hanging around was considered to be a little rougher around the edges than most, and late at night gave Jim more than their fair share of trouble. However, some breezy summer afternoons, Jean could still be seen driving up with their little girls in the back seat of their white Chevy BelAir. Jim would stop everything to come outside and smile. The girls would squeal to get a rare glimpse of their handsome, hard working daddy, and lean out the car windows to compete for a hug. They would be sound to sleep before he would close up and come home for the night. Life was good. It was the life he wanted.

When it came to establishing a strong work ethic, few could touch Jim Ballentine. Seven days a week, from ten in the morning until what-ever-hour the law dictated beer sales must end, he was at work. Life had taught the men of his generation certain true things: If it is not broke, don’t fix it. If it is broke, fix it yourself. Jim was a man of few words. He had his own unwavering sense of morality and street justice. Through the post war decades, he rarely nodded to trends. He knew the value of a dollar, the value of an honest day’s work, and the value of a good education. Faith and family were most important. He and Jean worked to instill these values in all their daughters.

From the little house on East Fifth Street, less than a mile from The Penguin, Jim and Jean would eventually raise and educate five girls. As their neighborhood went through the changes and unrest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Jean longed to move farther out to the suburbs, but Jim held firm, staying close to watch over his aging parents. They put the girls in private schools, and hoped for the best. As the small neighborhoods of Charlotte began to lose their innocence, so went the Plaza-Midwood area. The Plaza Theater began showing “adult films”. Clubs on Central Avenue started featuring “strip tease artists.” For a while, an unmistakable seediness crept in along with increased crime. It wasn’t perfect anymore, but it was Jim’s corner of the world, and no petty criminals were going to move him out.

Break-ins at the Penguin became more frequent. Jean often called late at night, begging Jim to come home early. Jim, unwavering, carried a gun and kept a good supply of baseball bats to keep the peace at the Penguin. Against Jean’s better judgment, the girls began to help out at the restaurant during the summers, waiting tables or making slaw. But rules were firm: No daughter worked there at night, with or without Jim. And everyone went back to school in the fall. Few investors sought out Plaza-Midwood in those days, opting for the more lucrative and trendy south side. Jim didn’t care. He just went on doing business his way. Friends and best customers found some solace in that. Few things ever changed at The Penguin. Not even the prices.

Still, nothing could stop the coming of the new millennium. The trendy crowd rediscovered Plaza-Midwood. Real Estate speculators called weekly to discuss “offers”. Jim just shook his head in amusement as young folks scurried to buy up land around him and “revitalize” the neighborhood. Change was sure to come. It seemed like overnight the old Post Office became an upscale bar and Restaurant. The library became a hair salon, and a sporty clothing store filled the garage which used to be a body shop. Jack’s Beauty Salon became a tattoo parlor. The Hoy Toy became an off beat little restaurant with a name no one could pronounce. A tree lined parking lot sprung up where the pool room used to be. A fancy Spa with tanning opened up next door, and eclectic antique shops began to dot the neighborhood. Girls with neon colored hair would wave to Jim and call out his name as he arrived to work. Guys with earrings and skateboards joined the regulars for lunch, a beer, or boiled peanuts at The Penguin.

Everything old is new again, the song went. Well, except for The Penguin… The trendy folks with the new money eyed Jim’s corner lot with a bit of envy coupled with exasperation. If he wont sell us the place, could he at least fix it up? Ballentine is out of step with the times! Can’t he put on a new roof? Young bicycle cops warily eyed the homeless and the drug addicts who seemed intent on making a daily pilgrimage along side construction workers, painters, and smartly dressed businessmen to The Penguin. What is it that makes that place so special anyway? The roof leaked, the juke box was broken, and air conditioning was sporadic. Daily weather fell through a large ceiling hole in the men’s room. Service was slow at times. But the food was good, and the beer was cheap and cold. Such offerings are universal ties that bind and know no sociological boundary. Still there was something else. Something unspoken yet understood to the customers who respectfully crossed through Jim’s doorway for decades.

Perhaps it had something to do with nostalgia, or the yearning for a more simple time of youth. Perhaps it had a lot to do with being able to come by and see Jim Ballentine. A rare man who in the springtime of his life fought for his country, and survived to make his American dream a reality. A man who in the summer of his life stood beside his beautiful wife and watched five little girls grow into women of whom they were profoundly proud. A man who in the autumn of his years was able to smile at the family he helped raise, and look with promise and fascination at his grandchildren, while still doing a simple work he enjoyed. Perhaps it is ultimately because the ordinary, in its own way, is truly the extraordinary.

Unmistakably, spring passes to summer, and summer quietly to autumn. And so forty-seven years slowly and suddenly passed from the day Jim Ballentine first stood in the doorway of his small ice cream shop, to that night in the winter of 1999 when he locked The Penguin door for a final time. Things that were broken were a little harder to fix that season, and Jim and Jean wanted to spend more time together at home.

All the people who thought Jim would never retire would be quite amazed at how well he adapted. Of course, he still wears his hair in the GI style he first received in 1944. He still favors those gray sweatshirts, and he still enjoys the sports page. His daughters, who long ago graduated from that small white wood house to debutant balls and wedding receptions, still compete for his attention. Six grand children and his loyal Lab, Dan, stand ever ready to create love and excitement in his life. Jim and Jean still disagree about things that may or may not have happened thirty-eight years ago, but they will celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary in August. It seems they are still a small town guy and girl who just enjoy being together. And The Penguin? Some guys with dreams and a vision have leased the place. They are over there working day and night to make it something great. They will do just fine. As we all know, Plaza-Midwood is an up and coming place. You can be sure The Penguin will be a vital part of it.

Article by: Jeannie Ballentine