The restaurant business is fluid and transient, with waiters, waitresses and staff typically staying with a particular job to finish a degree or until something else comes along.
For Alex Waller and J.R.’s Stockyards Inn in Tysons Corner, the story is a little different.
Waller retired from Stockyards in December, after working there for over 30 years, becoming more a member of the family than a member of the staff and leaving a hole in the family that may never be completely filled.
“I worked with Alex for about 26 years, and it’s like a divorce now that he’s not here,” said fellow waiter David Payne.
He said he misses Waller’s patient, calming presence in the restaurant where they spent so many years working together, but he’s happy to see his friend retiring to Charlottesville to care for his family.
“Alex really put the needs of the staff on a high priority here. He was always very patient. I’ll miss our daily chats. We used each other as sounding boards for life,” Payne said.
Waller began working as a waiter with the Aberdeen Barn when it was in the building that Stockyards now occupies, and he attributes his longevity in the business to “good owners, excellent customers and the help of the good Lord.”
He started in 1971 with Aberdeen Barn and remained when J.R.’s Stockyards purchased the building in 1978. “I was 31 or 32 when I started. I had worked for them [Aberdeen’s] in Charlottesville and then in Williamsburg when they opened there. The company and its employees are like a big family, we all treated each other with respect and had a great time.”
Through the years, Waller has seen many generations of families grow up at his tables, from births through graduations and wedding rehearsal dinners.
“Now it’s time to go home. I have grandkids now, and my mom’s been sick for a few years. My wife and I purchased a home in Charlottesville about 12 years ago with the intention of coming back,” Waller said. “I’m happy to be home, but I miss dealing with people every day. I need to find something to do with my time.”
In an average month, Waller said he served about 800 patrons, some becoming regular customers and friends through the years.
“I waited on lots of groups that would come in for lunch, like the Claude Moore Farm board meeting group that would come in once a month or so. We’d always have a lot of Christmas groups that we’d see every year,” he said.
THE PEOPLE HE worked with regularly would send Christmas cards to Waller and his family, a symbol of the personal relationships he nurtured in his three decades of service.
“Even at the church I attended, people would come into the restaurant to see me,” he said. “The Brown family, I sold them a set of World Book encyclopedias. I’ll miss Mr. and Mrs. Eastridge, who I used to see all the time.”
The key to having success with patrons, and also keeping the peace among co-workers, is patience.
“You really have to be patient at a place this big,” he said. “You deal with all kinds of people and attitudes, and you need to give yourself a few minutes sometimes with certain people.”
Waller and his wife, Joan, have been married for 30 years and have two sons, Jeff and Todd, both of whom have worked for Stockyards in the past.
“Todd worked for J.R.’s in the early 1980s at Festival Lake, and Jeff came up to work as a cook there, too,” he said. “This has always been a family business. My aunts and uncles were working here when I was a youngster. They helped me get my first job as a busboy.”
Since retiring in December, there’s been more time at home with his wife and grandchildren, but life has changed for Waller in many ways.
“In the restaurant business, there’s a lot of stress. I’ve taken that stress out of my life, but I still miss that being a part of my life,” he said. “This was the first time I haven’t worked on New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, which my wife liked. It’s also strange that I’m using a credit card for the first time in my life. I always had cash on me when I was working.”
He does not, however, miss driving through the traffic in the notoriously busy Tysons Corner area.
“I had a doctor’s appointment the other day, and he told me I’d have to find a new doctor in Charlottesville,” Waller said, so he wouldn’t have to make the long drive up to Northern Virginia. “I hadn’t thought about that … that was like the closing of that chapter.”
“Alex was always understanding,” said Helen Lewis, a co-worker and fellow longtime employee at Stockyards. “He never yelled at anyone. He had a good sense of humor and we’ll miss him.”
Describing Waller as a “humanitarian,” David Winter, director of operations for Stockyards, has worked with him since 1978.
“As head waiter, Alex was responsible for training all new employees and giving them confidence. He was nurturing with them … but that applied to all of his co-workers,” Winter said. “Everyone speaks so highly of him. There are members of the community that would come in and ask for him, he garnered so much respect.”
He also cites Waller’s patience and ability to keep calm during stressful situations, a trait that may lead to a phone call or two when things go badly now that he’s retired.
“He never got riled. He was always steady and kept his cool,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of people like that in stressful situations. He has a calming influence on people.”
THE MANAGEMENT at J.R.’s Stockyards threw a retirement party for Alex Waller Saturday afternoon, to allow him the opportunity to see some of his friends and co-workers without having to work, and also to show their appreciation and admiration for their friend.
“After 30 years it’s a fitting tribute to Alex. We want to wish him well in the future,” Winter said. “We’re very happy for him. It’s a family here, and Alex is a big part of that. Without him here, a part of the family is moving on.”
Jim and Karen Wordsworth, owners of the restaurant, presented Waller with a $500 gift certificate for Washington Golf, along with a night at the Ritz hotel, something Joan Waller had always asked for from her husband.
“When you have long-term employees that feel like family, you have to do what you can to help provide for them,” Jim Wordsworth said.
Waller was always willing to use his own time to volunteer in the company’s name for charity functions, something Wordsworth valued and respected.
“I think people appreciate that,” he said.
“There are two voids that Alex is leaving. There’s a physical void, that he’s not here for his shift anymore. But there’s also the environmental and climate void. With him here and laughing, there was a climate of camaraderie and being welcome,” he said. “His influence is still felt. Power ends, but influence continues after you’re gone.”
A plaque was also put on the wall of the room where Waller used to work, in dedication of his years of service.
“I don’t know how many accolades you can write about one person,” Karen Wordsworth said. “He was our spiritual leader and our heartbeat.”
Waller’s absence has struck a sadness in his former employers.
“He’s trained every single staff person we’ve ever had, and when we had a meeting last week to talk about the party, there was one girl who didn’t know who he was,” she said, eyes shimmering with tears. “He’s always been that cornerstone. He grew up with us. Without Alex, it’s like taking out a part of the building.”