DOING BUSINESS THE RIGHT WAY
Emerson culinary success based on devotion to employees and expectation of excellence
Disaster struck Walker’s Drive-In twice in 2005, but owners Derek and Jennifer Emerson consider the calamities blessings in disguise.
On Feb. 18, 2005, a fire caused enough smoke damage to force a three-month closure. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and power outages forced the owners to close yet again.
“Standing there at 5 a.m. watching the building burn, we didn’t really think so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Derek Emerson.
The blessing was that in remodeling the restaurant, the owners were able to address city code issues. And, although they were closed for three months, no employee missed a paycheck. Instead, employees were put to work painting and were paid through funds from insurance and fundraisers.
“One of our employees had been with us for a week before the fire, and he didn’t miss a paycheck either,” Emerson said. “We didn’t lose anybody in those three months.”
That commitment to staff is the Emerson’s top priority in running their businesses, which also includes the newly-opened Local 463 in Madison.
“Our philosophy is that 80 people depend on us to do a great job. It’s really important to us to take care of the people who take care of us,” he said.
Another priority is using local resources whenever possible.
Emerson, a 2010 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef South award, said he’s tried to use as many local products as possible in the decade he’s owned Walker’s, but decided to emphasize that concept in the name at Local 463.
“We like to keep our money in the South,” he said. “Our quail comes from Lucedale, we get cheese from Alabama and our grits are from the Delta. I mean, the Gulf of Mexico has the best seafood in the world. We try to get as much seafood as we can from local sources.”
While Walker’s remains a staple in the Fondren district, the Emersons are hoping to create another neighborhood favorite with Local 463 in Madison.
“We want it to be the kind of place where you recognize the people there, and it is part of the community,” he said.