The Walnut Cafe was cooler than your average breakfast joint from the moment Dana Derischweiler bought it in 1986. It was also highly unlikely to survive.
In fact, only a handful of Boulder eateries serving in 1986 remain open, including the Flagstaff House, Falafel King, Dot’s Diner, Sushi Zanmai, Lucile’s and The Sink.
The Walnut Cafe was one of Boulder’s first eateries to ban smoking, serve espresso drinks and specialize in traditional American pie. It was a place where everybody from old farmers to Naropa students were welcomed for eggs with a choice of two side dishes.
On Derischweiler’s final official Sunday morning before retirement at the original Walnut Cafe, she sat outside with her wife, Xanthe Thomassen, sipping coffee as well-wishers and memories swirled around them.
We talked about her unlikely and unexpected path from teen track star and would-be teacher to respected restaurateur, community leader and icon in Boulder’s LGBTQ community.
You just couldn’t be gay: “I was born in Dennison, Texas. That’s where I learned my manners. We moved to Pueblo when I was 11. I was an athlete and left to study phys-ed and coaching at Colorado State University. I was going to be a teacher but two things coincided. I got sober and I came out. I knew I couldn’t go into a profession where I couldn’t be myself. Back then you had to be hidden. You just couldn’t be gay.”
An entrepreneur is born: “I started working at the Walnut Cafe in Denver and learned about the food business. I was offered a partnership in the Walnut Cafe in 1986. My parents loaned me $24,000 dollars to get started. The Walnut was losing money. We didn’t have any customers. In ’86, it was at the edge of town.”
The thing about pie: “Tuesday was always the slowest day of the week business-wise, so I decided to call Tuesday ‘Pie Day.’ I love pie because pie is accessible, not pretentious, but when I started, I didn’t know how to bake. I was such a little tomboy growing up. The family story is that the only thing I was allowed to cook was garlic bread and I always burned it. My great aunts in Texas sent me recipes and I told them I would name the pies after them. I learned. These women were great cooks”
All kinds of diners: “We’ll have people coming in from church all dressed up and someone crossdressing sitting at the counter. We have Republicans, we have Democrats. There’s nothing gay about breakfast, pie or coffee.”
Leading with love: “I was my own boss so I could be who I was. That was the precedent we were going to follow for all people—staff, customers and purveyors. It wasn’t anything extraordinary, but there are so many stories. I’d have a parent call me and say: ‘Thank you so much for being who you are. My son just came out to me this morning at the Walnut Cafe because he felt comfortable.’”
Serve by being yourself: “People used to think that all the employees at the Walnut Cafe were gay, but it was never true. We’ve always wanted people working here who love this job. We tell them we’re never going to make them wear a name tag or read a script.”
Where the athletes are: “I’ve always loved to cycle and hike and do triathlons. The big money sports get a lot of recognition. I thought there was this need to honor endurance athletes. That’s why we have the Wall of Fame (at the original Walnut Cafe). There are runners, triathletes, cyclists, some world champions and Olympians and local heroes. They love the carbs at the Walnut.”
Kindness during a pandemic: “I had decided to retire but then COVID happened. It was the biggest challenge of my career. I just could not go out that way. We knew we had to step up. Xanthe and I put $25,000 in an account for our employees. We told everyone that if you want to donate, we are going to help anyone who needs it. So many people in the community sent money. I was so overwhelmed by the generosity.”
Passing the torch: “The new Walnut Cafe owners are Ashley Parzych and Ariel Cooke. They’ve both been here a long time and worked their way up from servers to general managers. When we finally got the restaurants back up and running, it was really time to move on. The girls realized there was an opportunity, but I didn’t want to push them. They’re like my daughters. They really know the core values and who we are in the community.”
Celebration and consolation: “The Walnut is the place where people come for graduations, birthdays, anniversaries and also when they are grieving. We needed to be there when there were fires, floods and terrible things in the news. That’s why it was so important to get the Southside Walnut open again after the shootings at King Soopers. People want to come where they are comfortable.”
Breakfast is a long-term relationship: “When you’re going to go to the same place over and over again, you want to have a relationship there. We have a gentleman in his 80s who has been coming into the Walnut almost every day since I started working here. He sits at the counter. Everybody knows him and what he wants. He walked in on my last day. I gave him a big hug and we both just cried for an uncomfortable amount of time. He says: ‘This has been my home.’ I’m sure he was in there again today.”
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursdays on KGNU.