Richard Walker Sr. and Richard Walker Jr.
If you’re familiar with the San Diego area or Chicagoland, you probably know about Richard Walkers. Since 1948, the Walker name has become synonymous with quality family dining. Since then, the family has perfected its reputation for outstanding gourmet pancakes and breakfasts.
Their story begins when Victor and Everett Walker began opening snack shops in Evanston, IL. In 1960, they opened Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette, IL. In 1981, Ray Walker and Richard Walker Sr., sons of Victor, opened Walker Bros Original Pancake House in Glenview, IL.
Cut to 7 years later, when Richard Walker Sr. ventured out on his own and opened Richard Walker’s Pancake House in Schaumburg, IL.. Then in 1996, Richard Sr. opened a second location in Crystal Lake, IL.
In 2006, Richard Sr. made the wonderful decision to relocate to San Diego and open the third location in downtown San Diego, CA
In 2014, the San Diego area got even luckier when Richard Walker Jr. joined the family business and opened the fourth Richard Walker’s Pancake House in La Jolla, CA.
The Walker’s family history and business reputation is admirable, to say the least.
We had the distinct pleasure of talking with Richard Walker of Richard Walker’s Pancake House in La Jolla about his family and his business.
La Jolla Blue Book: I understand that Richard Walker’s Restaurant history goes back to 1948, nearly 70 years starting with your granddad. I took a brief look at your restaurant “family tree” history. Seems it all began with brothers Everett and Victor, then onto brothers Ray and Richard Sr. and then finally onto you, Richard Jr, is that correct?
Richard Walker: That’s correct. It all started with Snack Shops in Chicagoland. Shortly after, the Walker family got involved in serving the best breakfasts in the area. With the family name on 11 restaurants to date between Chicago and San Diego County, it’s been quite the road.
LJBB: There’s two Richard Walker’s Pancake Houses (RWPH) in Chicagoland and two in San Diego County. Have you found a difference between Chicago foodies and California foodies?
Richard Walker: In California, is it far easier to procure our produce, dairy and meats locally year-round. This is a commitment we have to our customers in Chicago but at times it’s impossible. In California, we’re proud to offer the overwhelming majority of products locally and sustainably. And people in California really appreciate that hallmark of our commitment to locally producing our cuisine. In decades past, customers knew our product was superior but local vendors were not the “thing” they are now. The Walker Family has been doing this for over half a century and will continue to operate this way as long as RWPH exists.
Richard Walkers Pancake House La Jolla.
LJBB: I read that your father trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in classical piano, but then detoured into the food service industry during his studies. That’s quite a transition! You pretty much did the same thing. You were with Ernst and Young for 12 years, then in 2014 you joined the family restaurant business and opened the La Jolla location. Did you always sense that you would eventually join the family business?
RW: Working for Ernst and Young (EY) all those years was an incredible experience. I traveled to 47 states and over 60 countries during that period. I worked in EY’s Advisory Practice (as opposed to Accounting and/or Tax). I had the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest – not only my fellow management consultants, but also the clients we served. So many of the lessons I learned at EY have been applied to running a successful business here and now.
As far as a sense of ultimately being involved in the family business. . . I’d say that it was always in the back of my mind. My passion is for hard work, efficiency, human interaction, responsible procurement, customer service, and team building. Having the opportunity to serve the best breakfast in the world creates a perfect vehicle for me to live my passion.
LJBB: Your San Diego restaurants have been described as elegant, with the vibe of an upscale dinner house. Seeing how your father was a classical pianist, do you think there’s a possibility that we’ll ever be listening to classical music while dining at one of them?
RW: We solely play Classical and Baroque music overhead at the restaurant via satellite. You won’t hear the same track twice over the course of an entire week. You’d be surprised how many people really appreciate it! Even our staff has pep in their step when listening subconsciously to the soothing melodies.
LJBB: Tell us about the decor of Richard Walker’s. I read where you talked about things like the stained glass in your La Jolla location, and I watched your dad talk about the elegant vibe at the downtown location. I also understand that there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright influence that goes back a long ways. Is that where idea for a distinctive type of a decor for the pancake house began?
RW: Both the Downtown and La Jolla locations are similarly decorated and efficiently laid out. Mahogany millwork and high ceilings fill both spaces and an abundance of booths cradle our guests. Mid-Century clean lines and the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright can easily be sensed. However, it’s the original hand-made stained glass masterpieces created by Architecture Magazine’s “Tiffany of this century,” Jeff Smith, which steal the show. A lifelong Texan, Jeff has become a personal friend to both Sr. and Jr. He actually transports the installations nearly 2,000 miles and does the installations personally. At both locations, challenge yourself to find our iconic Rabbit scampering from one end of the restaurant to the other depicted in the stained glass.
Richard Walker’s Pancake House stained glass windows.
LJBB: There can certainly be some interesting dynamics when working with family members. What’s your experience been like working as father and son?
RW: I saved nearly every penny I made when I worked all those years for EY. I sold my Chicago condo and plowed everything I had into the La Jolla location. As a result, I own 100% of the location and all the good and bad that come with it. Richard Sr. owns 100% of his locations. This has kept Father and Son in a great place emotionally. We help each other because we want to. We want to see the other succeed. Sometimes our ideas work, sometimes they don’t. Financial shortcomings and windfalls are all a result of the decisions we ultimately make for ourselves. As a result, our relationship only strengthens with every passing day.
LJBB: What’s the strongest attribute you bring to the table or team?
RW: I think that my staff is happier when I’m around. I am physically present at the La Jolla location about 350 days per year. And every time I’m away for a day or two, I get back to a greater sense of calm when I’m there throughout the staff. And to have your staff appreciate you like that is not an easy culture to establish. The staff knows that everything will be better if the boss is around. I also know exactly what I don’t know. And the staff knows how crucial and how appreciated they truly are.
LJBB: Richard Walker’s has been honored and awarded with some impressive titles, including best breakfast, best new restaurant, best omelette, best coffee, the pinnacle of pancakes, and more! Out of all of these, which one are you the most proud of?
RW: Since opening in La Jolla, we have won the La Jolla Village News “Best Breakfast” and Best Omelette” award every year, along with “Best New Restaurant” the year we opened. However, the crown jewel of RWPH was winning the USA Today’s 5 Best award several years ago. This puts you on the map on a national (an even global) scale.
Richard Walker’s Pancake House Strawberry Waffle.
LJBB: What’s your personal favorite item on the menu?
RW: That’s an easy one: Egg White Vegetarian Omelette, add Spinach, Ham and no Cheese. You won’t believe how flavorful this can be! The dish is packed with protein and veggies while being almost void of fat. And for a special change of pace, I love our in-house ground Corned Beef Hash with Scrambled Egg Whites. With a group, you MUST order and Apple Pancake for the table.
Richard Walker’s Pancake House Apple Pancake.
LJBB: What sets Richard Walker’s apart from other pancake houses?
RW: Our diverse menu, local procurement, cleanliness, beautiful decor, happy employee culture – and the feeling that you’re in a classy operation. This is not a snack shop, not a diner, not a café. We’re elegant without being stuffy.
Richard Walker’s Pancake House raspberry crepes.
LJBB: What’s the best part of having a restaurant located in La Jolla?
RW: The best part of being located in La Jolla is the unique opportunity a business owner has to immediately serve the community. I was elected to the La Jolla Merchants Board and served for 2 years between 2014-2016. I also volunteered my time on the Traffic and Transportation Board and assisted with establishing the La Jolla Maintenance Assessment District (MAD). Those efforts quickly bear fruit in a community like La Jolla. The second best part of being located in La Jolla is the general public that our beautiful village contains. They know what good looks like and appreciate all the great things we’re trying to do to earn and keep their business.
Richard Walkers Pancake House in La Jolla.
LJBB: Before people enjoy a dining experience at Richard Walker’s Pancake House, is there anything particular that you wish you could tell them?
RW: Order an oven baked pancake or oven baked omelette. You’ll be enjoying something you can’t get anywhere else.
Richard Walker’s Pancake House Omelette.
LJBB: The restaurant business is not easy, but you and your family seem to have found a way to make it seem fun and easy. What’s your secret? What piece of advice would you like to give to budding restaurant owners?
RW: First, YES, the restaurant business is not easy! However, if you do everything right by your staff, you will ultimately do right by your customers – and ultimately be successful. And to do right by your staff, you need to give them everything they need. The definition of “everything they need” is always changing and it’s your job to know what that definition is every single day. Work hard, be patient, be supportive and follow through on what you say you will do.
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