'We Grow Our Own' 4

The Legacy of Wilma’s Patio is Dedicated Employees

How does a “casual family dining” restaurant like “Wilma’s Patio” on Balboa Island keep packing them in for the last 33 years? What’s the secret?

“Well, of course, it has to be the quality of the food,” you say.  Or, “It is so convenient when we’re exploring the Island with our out-of-town guests,” says a native Islander.  Or, “Wouldn’t think of going anywhere but Wilma’s after church…it’s right there on Marine Avenue!”

Newport Beach Lifestyle decided to discover “Wilma’s” secret to continued success. So, one noon, we settled into one of the cozy corners of this charming “Patio” and invited Sheri Drewry, owner and manager, to share “Wilma’s” story with us.  Mrs. Drewry (“Call me Sheri”) is the only daughter of the founders, Wilma and Maurice John (Morrie) Staudinger. She has worked at Wilma’s Patio in one capacity or another since she was a young woman.

Reminiscing, she told us about the family’s first venture into food when she was a youngster in Tahoe. Her parents opened one, then two, A & W Root Beer restaurants in both Tahoe and Truckee. That didn’t last long, as they really didn’t like the cold weather. After all, they had left the cold weather of Colorado far behind when they eloped to California in the 1940s. So, they returned to Southern California.

One day, they were visiting Balboa Island in 1975, and, to make a long story short, they bought their first restaurant and called it “Thee Patio,” serving burgers, fries and milkshakes. After struggling for two years, they realized the locals didn’t take a liking to the “fast food,” so the Staudingers moved to Glendale and leased out their building on Marine Avenue. However, they really loved the restaurant business and the community of Balboa Island, so when the lease was up, they decided to make another go of it and returned.

In 1982, “Wilma’s Patio” came to be, serving what they called “traditional American fare.” The architect, who worked closely with the Staudingers, made some appealing changes by opening up the structure to have a real patio, and actually suggested the name.

“The funny thing is that Mom never liked her name, but the architect begged to differ,” laughed Sheri. “The architect said, ‘It’s different. It’s funny and people will remember it.’”

And, her dad, Morrie, agreed.

Sheri is smiling and laughing, as she recounts the family history and memories of her parents. Sadly, her dad died suddenly in 1995, and her mom, Wilma, died August of last year at age 85.

“Dad was hilarious and made the customers laugh, and Mom made sure that everyone was happy, beginning with the employees and then, of course, the customers,” Sheri says. “The restaurant has always felt like home to me. And, we try to make people feel welcome, as if we were entertaining in our own home.”

Wilma’s Patio is the embodiment of  “the successful family business.” The proof is watching Sheri interact with her employees (she calls them “family”), smiling at customers, introducing people and then having to run up to the office. Sheri, like her mom and dad, spends hours juggling the tasks of running a restaurant.

“Dad was hilarious and made the customers laugh, and Mom made sure that everyone was happy, beginning with the employees and then, of course, the customers,” Sheri says. 

The real proof of a great restaurant is meeting some of its devoted employees. Waiter Fernando Cabrera is smiling and laughing as he tells us, “I’ve only been here since 1990. I used to be skinny.”

Sheri chimes in, “You know, he comes from a family of 17 and nine of his brothers have worked here at one time or another over a 20-year period. Today there is Elias, Guillermo and Francisco. Elias painted the kitchen when we needed it. Then, there is the Martinez family, with over 25 years of service. Brothers, nephews, and they are all so talented. They get involved in all aspects of the restaurant. One of the brothers is our chef, and we have nephews now, too. Oh, and the Robinson family has been with us seven years. You know, I learned from my parents that if everyone becomes a part of the business and feels like they are contributing and appreciated, they will feel like it’s their place. They have invested their hearts into this place.  I always say, ‘We grow our own!’”

And, speaking of “growing their own” the Drewry’s daughter, Leslie, who just graduated from UCSB in economics and accounting, has expressed some interest in the business.

“Leslie came home to work over the holidays and actually said, ‘Would you be opposed if somewhere down the line I would take over? Now, I see why you like and do this,’” Sheri explains. “This was her first real look at this job, a 9 to 5+, since her degree. Her father and I want her to go out and see the world and then decide what she wants to do, as we’re not going anywhere. In fact, my husband, Dale and I, are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this year. We started with Wilma’s Patio when I was 21.”

So Wilma’s Patio not only “grows their own,” but has a recipe for success: enthusiasm, passion and humor, and, oh, the food is terrific.