"You've got to move fast," said Debbie Cantrell, in an understatement equivalent to Dale Earnhardt Jr. saying I should buckle up or Paula Deen suggesting a few Rolaids.
Debbie is a waitress at one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Every day, lines out the door. Waitresses, balancing plates four deep up their arms. A place where young, old, rich, poor, black and white all eat together and $5 will buy you a full stomach. One word says it all.
"It's kind of like Luther," said Eric Voges, McCallie School tennis coach, over a plate of chicken and fried okra.
During the Friday lunch crowd, I got to see the other side of the menu at Wally's. I followed Debbie, then Stephen while he cooked, and Mr. Brown the dishwasher. It's an orchestra of hard work, where every person's job matters, kind of like synchronized swimming. With more cornbread.
By the end, I'd found an unexpected fullness, realizing that, when you
figure out Wally's, you kinda-sorta figure out life, too.
Lesson one: Pay attention.
Debbie hasn't stopped. Not since I got there. Not since 5:30 a.m., when she got there. Probably not since the mid-1990s, when she first started at Wally's.
Refill drinks. Clean off tables. Bag up take-out orders. Turn in tickets. Need more ranch dressing. Greet customers. Write down their order. Smile. And ask again — for the 1,000th time this hour — if her customers need anything.
I asked Debbie — speed-walking behind her — what it takes to be a good waitress.
"Be attentive,'' she said.
This is like some two-word Zen koan. Pay attention. To others.
"Walk a day in someone else's shoes," she said, near the butter rolls.
Debbie is like a mystic, answering in these cryptic, vague phrases. Mainly it's because she had 500 other things to do, but regardless, I know wisdom when I see it.
And I will never shortchange on a tip again.
Lesson two: Everybody matters.
The inside of Wally's kitchen is like a glimpse of heaven if God was a Southerner. Sweet potatoes boiling. More vegetables than I can name. Chicken snowed over in a white bed of flour. Bowls of butter. Trays of cornbread. I won't even mention the cobbler.
But the food doesn't cook itself. Stephen Hartley — working there for 12 years — butters toast, scoops some turnip greens, places a burger on the sizzling grill he just cleaned, all while dodging four other cooks doing their work.
In the back, Charles Brown washes the dishes. Has done that for the last 17 years.
"I love what I do," he said.
This is the way Gary Meadows wants it. Meadows started working at Wally's along with his brother Glen before either could drive. Decades later, they're co-owners (Glen manages the East Ridge Wally's) along with Tony Kennedy.
"Everybody's job is just as important as the next person's," Meadows said.
He'll say this to me a dozen times before I leave. He chases me down near the exit, asking me to include the names of three women who open the 4:30 a.m. doors each day at Wally's.
"Darla Bowling. Carolyn Moore. Retha Giles," he said.
It's like an Oscar speech. He keeps naming the names of all these people who matter to him.
But he names one the most: Tony Kennedy.
Lesson three: Love your work.
In 1971, Kennedy bought Wally's. Like Cal Ripken Jr., he says he hasn't missed a day of work since. But it's not the longevity — it's his kindness.
People at Wally's love their jobs. The customers love the food. It starts with Kennedy, who runs the restaurant with the heart of a servant, and is often the first person you see when you walk in the door.
"I love to work," he said.
We can tell.
Lesson four: Be like Tony Kennedy.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...