South Tampa’s Village Inn features a family affair

Published August 15 2018
Updated August 19 2018

How Emma Walker spent her summer vacation:

Visited Chicago.

Gymnastics.

Went to the beach.

And, by taking a summer job as a hostess at the Village Inn at 215 N Dale Mabry Highway, carried on a decades-long family tradition.

"I just wanted to make money," said Emma, 14, who just started her freshman year at Plant High School. "I never thought about being part of family history."

Her great-grandparents were Dow and Mary Sherwood, who, in 1961, opened that Village Inn as the first in Florida.

Since then, it has been an unwritten family rule — first among the Sherwood grandchildren and then great-grandchildren — that you take a summer job at one of their Village Inns.

The family company, Dow Sherwood Corp., now owns 10 in Florida and one in Virginia Beach, making them the largest franchisee in the country.

Of the Sherwoods’ 14 great grandchildren, 10 have worked during the summer at a family restaurant. The remaining four, including Emma’s 10-year-old twin brothers, will likely do so when they are older.

Employed alongside Emma this summer was her brother Dow Walker, 18, a Plant High senior who started hosting at the Village Inn when he was 12.

"I am blessed," said Jim Walker, 49, who is Emma and Dow’s father, Sherwood’s grandson, and vice president of the Dow Sherwood Corp.

"My brothers and sister worked at a Village Inn. Almost all my nieces and nephews have. What a great tradition."

It started accidentally by his then-stay-at-home mother, Mary Kay Walker — Sherwood’s daughter — while she raised her five children in Chicago.

"I needed a break during the summer," said the 78-year-old Tampa resident, who was 22 when her parents opened the restaurant. "So, I’d send them to their grandparents in Tampa."

But the Dale Mabry Village Inn was open 24 hours, seven days a week back then. And if they were not sleeping, she said, her parents were likely there.

"My grandfather would say we’ll go boating and fishing and to the beach, and we’d get excited," Jim Walker, who was 10 the first time he summered in Tampa, said. "We did that on day one. Then we’d spend the rest of the summer at the restaurant. But I loved being there."

That’s because Cincinnati Reds players frequented the restaurant during spring training, he said, and George Steinbrenner and other locals of note were regulars.

It was a true mom and pop eatery, he said. His grandmother ran the kitchen. His grandfather looked after the dining area. "The menu was made up of whatever my grandparents wanted. In those days you didn’t have to adhere to a rigid set menu."

One example: the "Sherwood Burger," said Virginia Sherwood, Jimmy Walker’s aunt and a Sherwood daughter. "It was an accident. Someone spilled suzette sauce and powder sugar meant for a pancake onto a burger and it tasted good."

Dow and Mary Sherwood eventually acquired five more Village Inns.

By the late 1980s, their two daughters relocated from Chicago to Tampa to take the company reins.

Under their watch, the restaurants modernized: Franchise policy dictated that menus become uniform. Bow ties and button downs were replaced by polo shirts with a Village Inn logo. Smoking was banned. They shut down at 2 a.m. on weeknights.

"The first time they closed, they couldn’t lock up," Walker laughed. "They’d didn’t have a key. They’d always been open."

One thing didn’t change: The restaurants remained family-operated.

Walker and his brother, Paul Walker, 51 —who serves as president from Orlando — took leadership positions in the early 2000s. Brothers Mark and Matt Walker also joined the company. The former manages restaurants and the latter serves on the board of directors.

Only sister Karen Proesel chose not to have a career with the family business.

Walker said his brother Mark’s daughter, Carmelina Walker, was the first of the Sherwood great grandchildren to take a summer job at a restaurant, also doing so at the Dale Mabry locale. Now 32, she is no longer part of the business.

No other great grandchildren are old enough for full time jobs.

Neither Dow nor Emma is interested in making the Village Inn a career. But that is OK with their dad.

"I would never push them," he said. "I want them to be happy."

Still, both look forward to future summer jobs.

"Of course," Dow said. "It’s what we do."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

   
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