Columbus County restaurant opens its door and its heart on Thanksgiving

By Ivey Schofield

When Helen Holden bought Penn’s Grill in 2016, she knew she wanted to bring the Columbus County restaurant known for its fried chicken sandwiches back to life. 

Six years later, Holden is fulfilling her dream – and going beyond her role as a successful business owner in downtown Whiteville to also serve as a cheerleader for the community and a helping hand for those in need. 

Holden has been preparing free Thanksgiving dinners for families that might not otherwise have a hearty meal since she bought Penn’s Grill. In 2020, due to pandemic safety guidelines, she started offering individual Thanksgiving plates for people to order. 

“We are all part of the same community,” Holden said. “In my opinion, we need to build each other up.”

On Thursday, the restaurant will also provide free Thanksgiving meals to the local fire, police and emergency services departments. 

Holden gives first responders free meals every holiday, and she opens the restaurant to them during hurricanes. 

“I appreciate what they do, and the least I can do is feed them. And,” Holden quipped, “if we feed them, they’ll cut the power on quicker.”  

Whiteville has been shrinking for more than a decade, but in recent years, its 5,300 residents have made passionate efforts to revive the downtown area. 

In 2021, Whiteville became a Main Street Community, one of 67 across the state that receive revitalization support from the N.C. Main Street and Rural Planning Center. 

Since then, several businesses have opened, creating dozens of jobs and leading to nearly $1 million in public and private investments downtown

Holden, who was appointed to the Whiteville City Council in fall 2021 and elected in spring 2022, joined the Main Street Community program, offering “Love Local” events downtown on the first Friday of every month. Local musicians perform, children play games, and Penn’s Grill makes meals for the events and stays open until 8 p.m.

Holden said the goal is to bring more visibility to local businesses. 

“There is life in this town,” she said. “We’re growing in the right direction. We just need more foot traffic.”

Penn’s Grill is a staple in downtown Whiteville.
Contributed photo

Penn’s Grill, which opened in 1946 and closed in 2010 until Holden took over, has expanded its menu to offer items not typically found in southern diners. They include quinoa, avocado, salmon and vegan patties. 

The restaurant partners with nearby farmers to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I wanted a healthier option in the county,” Holden said. “So far it’s been successful.”

Holden also posts supportive messages about her neighboring businesses on Facebook, using Penn’s Grill’s platform to amplify others. 

“She’s the only one I know who does that,” said Hilda Smith, who has worked at Penn’s Grill for four years. “She loves people, and she loves to help.”

Smith said she admires Holden, who arrives at the restaurant at 4 a.m. some days. 

Holden usually closes the eatery in time to get her daughter from school. Some days, she has to be at city council meetings at 6:30 p.m.

Smith said she sometimes worries about Holden overextending herself. “She has a lot to do and a lot on her,” she said. “Really and truly, I admire her.”

Holden recently cut back her own hours at Penn’s Grill to spend more time with her daughter, who is in elementary school. 

Smith said she was happy about that. “Helen is a one-of-a-kind woman,” she said. “Whatever she can do to uplift her restaurant and her community, I’m with her as long as I can.”

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Penn’s Grill offers a monthly event to attract visitors to downtown Whiteville.
Photo by Ivey Schofield