A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, September 15, 2008

End of an era

Sunday was a bittersweet day on Solano Avenue.
It was sweet because the annual Solano Stroll was as great as ever.
But it was also sad because Walker's Pie Shop closed its doors on Sunday, after 44 years of providing Albany, Berkeley and El Cerrito residents with a welcome throwback to a kinder, gentler time.
Eating at Walker's was like going to Grandma's for dinner, with homemade popovers instead of bread, old-fashioned rib-sticking entrees, and those incredible pies made from the Walker family's secret flaky piecrust recipe.
Fresh-faced Albany High grads waited tables, Walker family pictures adorned the walls, and the waitresses threw surprise birthday parties for elderly customers who otherwise wouldn't have anyone to celebrate with.
The restaurant was founded by Doug Walker and his sister Dolly, who learned the food business from their dad, Scotty, proprietor of the old Heather & Thistle in Berkeley. The son of immigrants, Scotty taught his children the traditional immigrant values: work hard, give good value and treasure your family.
When Doug and Dolly were little, they would go to the restaurant after school and sit in the back, doing their homework. As they got older they began helping out, starting as dishwashers and working their way up.
After their father's death they founded Walker's Pie Shop in 1964. When they decided to retire in 1999, they had to decide whom to sell the restaurant to.
Many lucrative offers rolled in, but they turned them all down and sold to their chef, Jorge Sandoval, instead.
Jorge came to this country from his native Guatemala in 1982 and got an entry-level job at Walker's as a dishwasher. By 1989 he was running the kitchen. Ten years after that, he and his wife, Emma, owned the place.
Their daughter, Emmeli, now 11, came there every day after school and sat in back, doing her homework - just as Doug and Dolly used to do when they were her age.
When they sold the restaurant to Jorge, I asked Doug, "Why him?"
"Because," Doug replied, "he reminds me of my father."
For the last nine years, Jorge and Emma did their best to keep Walker's afloat. Jorge worked second and third jobs, and Emmeli even offered to contribute the money she's saving up for her college education. (Her parents turned her down.) But it was not to be.
On Sunday, many customers stopped by for the final goodbye. Everyone hugged, and everyone was crying.
We reminisced about the old days, when the staff would close the shutters after work, so nobody could see them from the street, and have huge pie fights with the day's leftover pies. (Tip: Use cream pies. The stains are easier to get out of your clothes than berry pies.)
And the 1995 wedding of Walker's waitress Melinda Potts and Fatapple's waiter Matt McCormick. Longtime customers of both eateries attended the ceremony, feasting on ham by Walker's and wedding cake by Fatapples.
We drank a toast to my favorite waitress, Gina Niemeier, who died in 2002 of mesothelioma. I will always remember the big smile she had for everyone who walked in the door and her infallible memory for which customers liked extra popovers and which ones liked extra ice cream on their pies.
And we remembered waiter Remo Reggi, the nicest young man you'd ever want to meet, who was murdered at age 20 on Sept. 11, 2005, by a gang of carjackers who have never been caught.
Walker's closing has affected Emmeli most of all. She was only three when her parents bought the place, and it's been her second home ever since.
But she's holding her head high. Last week she wrote this letter to her hero:
"Dear Barack Obama,
"Next time we will send you money. Right now we lost our jobs and we can't afford to give you any, we are all sorry. But to let you know we are going to vote for you always. By the way, this is an 11 year old talking to you I am in 6 grade.
"Thank you for understanding us.
"Emmeli Sandoval