BY ANN CIPPERLY
FOR THE OBSERVER
Last Thursday night, Walters’ Gas and Grill in Opelika was featured on the national television show “Restaurant: Impossible” after it was revamped last October by show host Robert Irvine and his team.
Penny and Robert Walters, who were owners at the time, told their story in the 90-minute program. Local residents were invited to attend the filming.
Penny told Irvine about her journey in the restaurant business. When she and Robert married, they each had two children from previous marriages. Penny had a love and passion for cooking and preparing large meals for the family, as well as operating a restaurant called Henny Penny’s.
Everything in Penny’s life changed when her 18-year-old son Matt tragically died from a seizure. It was devastating and difficult for her to function, she said. She went into a depression and could no longer handle Henny Penny’s.
“When I lost Matt, a piece of me was gone,” she said. “[But,] I surrounded myself with family and things I loved.”
Ten years later, Penny said that she felt strong enough to operate another restaurant, and she wanted to stay busy and be around people. Penny and Robert opened Walters’ Gas and Grill in 2014 in a property that had been closed.
“When we opened it back up, it was basically a restaurant that sold gas,” Penny said. “It makes me proud to say I built this.”
While Penny knew she was a good cook, she said she didn’t understand the business part of a restaurant, which included selling gas and operating a small grocery.
She hired a manager, but it was difficult to turn over control of the business. Over time, the stress caused Penny to have health issues, including heart problems and spinal and disc problems. Her doctor told her she needed to slow down and step back from the business, as the stress was harming her health.
“It would be devastating if I had to close the doors,” she told Irvine. “I don’t want that to happen. It would be something else I lost.”
Last October, Irvine and his team arrived to evaluate and redo the restaurant in two days. A group of locals, including myself and my husband, Don, had been selected for the first day of filming. Once they were ready for us to enter, we stood in line to have a COVID-19 test and were given a release form to sign. Then, we waited to have our photo taken, showing our signature on the release.
Once the lunch was ready to serve, we walked into the restaurant and made our selection of a meat and two sides at the cafeteria-style buffet. Everyone who had seen an episode of the show knew that at times, Irvine would announce he was closing the restaurant and send everyone home without finishing their meal.
Not knowing what to expect, we began trying fried chicken, fresh vegetables and cornbread. As the cameramen gathered in the room, Irvine came out and said, “I feel I have been transported back into the 1930s where a store meets a restaurant. There is a hutch with pickles, tomatoes and chutneys, but then I have these shelves with snacks and shelves with nothing.”
Irvine pointed out dusty places and areas where work was needed, then asked several people about their meal. While some had complaints, there were local workers who enjoyed lunch there every day. When someone gave a comment, they were soon surrounded by cameramen. Much of this part did not appear on the program.
After the lunch filming, we were told that if we were invited back for dinner the next day, we would receive an email that afternoon. Ours arrived later that day with details for the dinner.
The following day was the coldest we had in October. After another COVID-19 test and photo, we were in line for dinner. Things seemed to be running late as it became dark and colder. We watched as Penny waited at the front door of the restaurant for everything to be ready. When Irvine took her inside, we heard her say, “It is beautiful.”
We listened to the other comments, and slowly those in line were taken inside.
When it was our turn, we were taken to the first table, and another couple was seated with us. We were amazed at how different the restaurant looked. The store section and restaurant had been reversed and completely revamped. Now, the restaurant was in front, and the groceries were in the back near the coolers with beverages.
We noticed the differences in the restaurant with the large black-and-white mural of a cotton field, the rusty vents now painted a bright green and the other freshly painted areas. Columns with hay feeder screens added interest throughout and separated the front and back. Chairs were new, and fresh cloths covered some tables while others had a rustic look.
We were given a menu for ordering instead of standing in a buffet line as we did for lunch. We thought the menu sounded more upscale-southern. While it was more expensive than the buffet, it was still reasonably priced.
We ordered the nachos with chips covered in Brunswick stew and topped with cheese sauce ($10) and crispy chicken cutlet with mustard sauce, sweet potatoes and apple slaw ($16). The couple next to us tried the collard pasta ($14), which I wished I had ordered, among other choices. We all agreed the food was delicious. We liked that the food was served on white china instead of a Styrofoam plate.
Other items on the menu included shrimp with field peas with okra, tomato and vinaigrette ($15), pimento cheese plate with smoked sausage ($10), farm fresh fried rice with vegetables ($12) and others.
Once the filming was finished, Irvine talked to the group, telling us to be kind to others. He talked about being in the military and then had those who served come to the front. He thanked them for their service. Irvine served as a Marine like my husband Don.
Irvine signed menus and allowed us to be photographed with him. I told him I enjoyed his show because I appreciated how he helped owners with their lives as much as he assisted with upgrading their restaurants. He was very personable and easy to talk with as well. When we left that night, we were looking forward to seeing the program and what happened behind the scenes with Penny and Robert.
Last Thursday night on “Restaurant: Impossible,” the program opened showing Irvine driving from Auburn through the countryside with cotton fields on his way to Walters’ Gas and Grill.
Irvine brought Penny and Robert into the store and asked them about their business. Robert replied it was a country store, while Penny added that it was mainly a restaurant, but they were trying to serve other needs of the community.
“This is the only place to get gas within 20 miles, or a package of chips, a beer or soda,” she said. “We have a farm, and I do a lot of canning, catering and trying to run the store. I pretty much have my hands full.”
He tried her homemade Brunswick stew that she sells in jars. Irvine told Penny that he was helping by telling her what was wrong and that she had to understand what it takes to be successful.
With her health issues, Penny had been leaving the cooking to the kitchen staff and her manager, Vanessa Huddleston. Irvine asked Penny to go home and prepare a meal for him. He said he would see her in an hour. Penny prepared lamb, collards, peas and jasmine rice, which Irvine said he thought was good.
Back at the restaurant, Irvine talked to Penny and Vanessa about food costs and expenses. Penny said she loved cooking, but bookkeeping was not her forte. Her food cost was much too high. He explained she needed to make enough on the dishes she prepared to cover the cost of the food, labor and overhead expenses.
Irvine prepared new dishes for the restaurant that, if sold at a certain price, would increase her revenue. Those dishes were served for dinner in the renovated dining room on the second day of filming.
After watching the television show Thursday night, Penny said, “I was apprehensive. I didn’t know how they were going to portray us. Once we saw the show, we were very pleased. They portrayed us just as it was. They came to our home, farm and showed what kind of people we are. It was pretty rough in the beginning when Chef (Irvine) was criticizing the food and things, but I was very pleased at the outcome of the show.”
While the new dishes were offered for a while, customers didn’t want to pay the prices, so they are no longer served on a regular basis, but once in a while, the Brunswick stew nachos are available.
With her health issues, Penny retired early this year and sold the business.
“I started thinking about my health and the stress,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy retirement and not have my health deteriorate. I decided this was a good time for me to bow out while I am on a high note. I have been successful at my restaurant. I made it what it is from ground up.”
Huddleston, who was the manager, is leasing the business from the new owner and now operating it.
“The worst part about letting it go was not seeing my customers,” Penny said. “A lot of my customers are like family to us. I miss them. I do go to the store and restaurant a couple times a week. We still stay in contact with a lot of them. We would not have made it what it was without our customers.”
Walters’ Gas and Grill is located at 15930 U.S. Highway 80 E. in Opelika. For further information, call 334-725-1805.
Irvine has shared some of the recipes of the new items he recommended during the show on his Facebook page. Vist www.facebook.com/chefirvine to see these recipes.