Why Breakfast Is Hard
Richard Walker Jr. shares lessons learned as a third-generation pancake houser
Photo by Sam Wells
A human at a breakfast restaurant is the most dangerous type of restaurant customer. Their potential for meltdown is peak. Their check engine light is on. They don’t want food, they need it on a very basic, survivalist level.
It’s understandable when you do the math.
Let’s say you don’t eat an hour before sleep. Despite all the American odds, you get the recommended eight hours. Then it takes you an hour from the time you wake up to the time you sit down at a breakfast restaurant. At that point you’ve been fasting for 10 hours, nearly half a day. Your body is screaming for sustenance, for calories, for coffee and the necessary input to live. In lieu of those things, your body will take someone’s head, possibly that of a poor server or busser or restaurant owner.
There will be carbs or there will be blood.
“When I first started, someone would say, ‘Hey Richard, Table 21 needs to see you,” explains Richard Walker Jr., whose dad started Richard Walker’s Pancake House in Chicago in 1989 before relocating to San Diego. “As a green owner not knowing anything, I’d run over to table 21. So I show up and I get fileted by these hungry people and there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re ****ing hungry. You do that 10 times and the next time a server says a table wants to talk to you, you say, ‘Do they have their food? Get them their food and I’ll go over.’ Then you go over and everything’s perfect.”
The Walkers know this business. Starting in 1961 with Walker Bros Original Pancake House in Evanston, Illinois, they spawned what is now nearly 60 years of pancake housing. Walker Jr. became the third generation to join the legacy when his career as a financial whiz at Ernst & Young became too much for a body to bear (“I was partying too much,” he admits). He switched late nights for ungodly early mornings, cocktails for coffee. All of the Walker restaurants are family owned and operated. In a restaurant landscape where it takes a village (and their investment dollars) to raise a restaurant, that’s a rarity.
Their restaurants are a fairly straightforward business model. They don’t have bloody marys or alcohol of any sort. This may seem like a bad idea (the bar sales often fund the rest of the restaurant), but the low cost and high profit of breakfast items (eggs are cheap, flour is cheap) often balance the ledgers. They don’t have “eggs three ways.” They’ve got omelettes and German pancakes and their own coffee blend and plenty of it.
They just need to be fast. Real fast. And manage to be polite and hospitable in the midst of a rush of people, all half-starved from their overnight fast. Especially as a sit-down breakfast joint. Because if you’re not fast enough, a fast-casual option is ready to pounce on that business (fast-casual makes up about 79% of restaurant breakfast business in the U.S.).
I talked with Richard Walker, Jr. about the breakfast life over a very good German pancake:
Was Ernst & Young like Wolf of Wall Street?
It was over 100 drinks a week. Twenty-five countries per year. We’d go to Burning Man and all the major events. It’s going to kill you, but it’s amazing. You’re supposed to do it until you’re 30, I did it until I was 35. Eventually you’ve got to save yourself.
How hungry is the breakfast crowd?
Hungry. The less you say to them the better. Pick out a table. If you stop them and ask them a bunch of questions, they start looking at each other and get confused. Pace is the biggest difference. Get their drink orders before they sit. Water on the tables once they’re down. When they wait in line and they’re at their table, something better be happening. It’s not like when you’re at a restaurant for dinner, you sit at the bar, take your time. At dinner, they might’ve had a snack at two, or they’ve had a cocktail. The edges are gone.
Was there ever a day when you thought you might get out? To hell with pancakes?
Definitely. About day five after opening the La Jolla location back in 2014 (my first actual restaurant that I owned 100% on my own). I was flat broke from investing all my money into building the store. In those few short days, we had made a lot of mistakes and upset some people. The person that was supposed to be my general manager resigned with no notice. I was thinking deep down that I could easily go back to becoming a consultant and start over... But everything I had was in that store. How could I turn back now? So the thought was fleeting and you had to get up and keep trying. I feel so fortunate that everything worked out.
What’s it like opening a new spot?
Each time I’ve opened a new spot, I had zero dollars left. Zero. You put every single penny into it. Then I put every single penny into Carlsbad. If it doesn’t go OK, I’m not OK. There’s no backup plan. It was very hard getting La Jolla off the ground. I spent $1.2 million on a space I was renting. There was no getting out. I don’t own the building. So all that I put into those spaces is now worth nothing. Thankfully it all worked out.
Are the customers supportive?
Most of them are great. They understand and they support us. But there are customers that it’s part of their agenda, their lifestyle—to go into new restaurants and **** all over them and never come back. They go in there and tell you you’re a big ***hole and everything sucks, your booths are uncomfortable—oh, and by the way, I hate the color of your millwork. Then they try to get something for free. I know who these people are now, and I go up to them and tell them I know what they’re doing and ask them not to come back.
Three generations of Walker restaurants. How hard is it working with family, resisting the urge to snuff one of them out?
The biggest challenge is keeping patient with legacy family members who are resistant to change. So many things are done in the restaurants that have been around for decades because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Bringing process improvement, new ideas, and new concepts to the table is always hard. Sometimes it’ll take my father or uncle months to adopt a process that I knew would have been successful for them right out of the gate. It doesn’t affect me directly but it makes me sad that they may have to work harder than they should to get the same results.
What do you eat there?
German Pancake, prepared as it should be with whipped butter, lemons and powdered sugar. I partake in one at least once a week. Never gets old.
The newest Richard Walkers Pancake House is open now in Carlsbad. 2656 Gateway Rd.