Solano Avenue, one of the last remnants of Main Street U.S.A., will soon lose a piece of its fabric as American as apple pie.
Walker’s Restaurant and Pie Shop will close Sept. 30.
Jorge Sandoval, the owner, sold the family business after “people just stopped coming in.”
He did everything he could to keep customers coming. “The cost of everything keeps going up, up, up,” he said. “But we didn’t pass the additional costs on, and still they stopped coming. So I have no choice—I’d go broke if we didn’t close.”
Sandoval stopped serving dinners—his bread and butter—a month ago due to soaring costs and faltering receipts.
“Less than a year ago, flour, for instance, cost $16 for a fifty-pound bag. Now it’s $28. And that’s nothing compared with other food costs.”
A vexing confluence of dramatic economic, demographic and cultural changes has dogged many small businesses on Solano Avenue and in other small business districts. Malls with huge advertising budgets and plenty of parking have drawn away customers, as have new trendy spots marketing ambiance and exotic fare. Yet perhaps the most exacting change is that most working people have less expendable income, and what they spend they tend to spend at chain stores.
Restaurants are particularly vulnerable to such vagaries since margins are thin. It is difficult to foresee how to staff a restaurant from one day to the next, and food is not only expensive but perishable.
“It used to be you could predict when you would be busy and when things would be slow,” Sandoval said. “Not any more. I guess a lot of it depends on what happens on cable TV these days,” he quipped.
Doug Walker and his first wife Bonnie opened Walker’s Pie Shop in 1964.
Gas was 30 cents a gallon, and Albany was a working-class town back then. A postage stamp cost a nickel. A family could buy a house for $12,000 and send the kids to the University of California tuition-free.
Doug Walker started serving dinner in 1969, taking the menu from his father, Scotty, after he closed his restaurant on the corner of Solano and Ramona a few years before.
Back then a customer at Walker’s could get a bowl of homemade soup, a salad, a basket of popovers, an entree, vegetables, potatoes, a piece of pie and a cup of coffee for $3.25 plus tax.
Thirty years later, in 1999, when Walker sold the business to Sandoval, that same meal cost $16.
Despite skyrocketing costs fueled by soaring gas prices and what had been a housing bonanza, Walker’s continued to serve that same dinner for less than $17. Yet beginning in 2001, more and more tables sat empty.
“I thought maybe (customers) stopped coming because they wanted a lighter fare,” Sandoval said. “So I added pasta and more fresh fish, things like that. And the regulars complained. ‘What happened to the ham and beef stew?’ So I went back to the tried-and-true menu, keeping some of the new things. Still they stopped coming.”
Jorge Sandoval came to the United States in 1982. Born and raised in Guatemala, he drove an ambulance for the Red Cross during a part of that nation’s deadly civil war, a reluctant witness to the many atrocities committed by the ruling military junta.
He came to the United States to escape the violence and “because there were more opportunities here.”
Sandoval met his wife, Emma, while both studied culinary arts at Contra Costa College. Emma was born and raised in Venezuela.
Sandoval got a job washing dishes at Walker’s in 1986. Just months later when one of the cooks left suddenly, Sandoval convinced Doug Walker to give him a chance at the grill. Walker was concerned about his lack of experience, but he worked hard and proved to be more than up to the challenge, coming in on his own time to learn new recipes and to hone his craft.
While a full-time employee at the restaurant, Sandoval worked a second—and sometimes a third—job as well. “He likes to work,” Emma said with a roll of her eyes.
The two saved every penny, and managed to buy a small house. When Sandoval heard Walker was selling the business in 1999, he jumped on it. “Doug was very good to me,” Sandoval said. “He wanted to sell the business to an employee, he helped me out a lot.”
Business was good for many years. The couple’s daughter, Emily, now 11 years old, studied at the back table of the restaurant, and the Sandovals bought a new and bigger house. When Jorge wasn’t working at the restaurant, he was busy making improvements at home. “Work, work, work, that’s all he does,” Emma laughed.
Community groups could always count on Walker’s to donate pies for special events, contribute gift certificates, even donate food for school fund-raising events.
A few years back, Walker’s “went green,” installing energy-efficient lights, recycling, composting food scraps and all organics, reducing water, gas and electrical use. “I did those things for the future of the planet and my daughter,” Sandoval said. “But I must tell you, it also saved me money.”
Life was good, though the Sandovals worked long hours and rarely had free time.
Then the Twin Towers were attacked. And things have not been the same since.
Families still came in after Little League games, or for dinner with grandma and grandpa. They came for the dinner specials, for homemade pies made of fresh sliced peaches and sweet plump berries, pecans and rhubarb, strawberries and lemon crème, all wrapped up and baked in a light flaky crust.
But things would not return to normal. “Another problem, to be honest with you, is parking,” Sandoval said. “My clientele, especially seniors, can’t walk here. They have to drive. And if there are no parking spots, they just keep going.”
Several new restaurants have opened their doors in what previously were retail spots. Some have asked how they got around local ordinances that require new restaurants to provide off-street parking.
“But what can you do?’ Sandoval said. “What is done is done.”
Sandoval worries about his employees almost as much as he does about his own family. He knows how hard they work and how hard it is to find a job these days. He knows because he started at Walker’s in the back, washing dishes. He is not one to forget such things.
Soon Walker’s will go the way of the malt shop, the corner bakery and, well, the local pie shop. Asked if he might bake pies at some other place at some other time in the future, Sandoval was tight-lipped: “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I’ve learned one thing, anything is possible.”