Sculpture honoring Ernie and Willa Royal unveiled

Sculpture honoring Ernie and Willa Royal unveiled

Ernie Royal was ‘Jackie Robinson of the Food Service Industry’ 

Thirty years after Ernie Royal died and Royal’s Hearthside Restaurant closed, Ernie and Willa Royal are being honored with a life-sized sculpture downtown.

Ernie Royal, a national leader in the food service industry and the first black restaurant owner in Vermont, and Willa Royal, who was his partner and greeted every guest, were brought to life in stone by designer Amanda Sisk and sculptor Don Ramey. The sculpture is the 12th piece on the Rutland Sculpture Trail, a collaboration highlighting local history and people who made it. 

“Mr. Royal was the Jackie Robinson of the food service industry,” said Gerry Fernandez, who worked for him in the early 1980s and later founded the national Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. “He broke barriers and inspired hundreds of people of color, including me, to build careers and own restaurants.” 

Royal started working in a kitchen in Boston at 13, and in 1955 started a small restaurant in Dorchester, Mass. When he tried to buy the building, he faced racism as Boston bankers refused to give him a loan, so he moved to Vermont and started over. He opened Royal’s Hearthside in 1963 and operated it until 1994, with only a one-year “retirement” in the 1980s.

Royal’s was a success from the start, with Willa creating a welcoming dining room and Ernie commanding the kitchen - and visiting nearly everyone who entered. They drew diners – and restaurant critics – from across New York and New England, who enjoyed his innovative methods and their warm personalities. 

Through it all, Ernie mentored Black men and women, established a scholarship for Black students at the Culinary Institute of America, and left his entire estate to support it when he died in 1994. 

He was the first African American to join the board of directors of the National Restaurant Association. He was named to the African-American Chefs Hall of Fame posthumously in 2017, 100 years after his birth. 

“Ernie and Willa literally helped hundreds of people of color get their first jobs, fulfill professional dreams, and change their lives,” said President Mia Schultz of the Rutland Branch of the NAACP. “It is an honor to honor them today."

One of the people who benefited from Ernie Royal’s tutelage was Rutland native Raymond Rogers. Rogers eventually enlisted in the Navy, and was repeatedly promoted, ultimately joining the White House food service in 2007, and becoming the personal valet and chef to President Barack Obama in 2009, where he served for eight years.

Don Ramey found carving the piece a special experience.

“I only had the opportunity to enjoy dining at Royal's Hearthside once in the early 1990s, so I was touched by the number of people who stopped by to tell me their memories of Ernie and Willa's kindness, and generous hospitality,” Ramey said. “It inspired me to try to bring that character into their portraits.”

Amanda Sisk, the designer, was key to Willa’s inclusion in the piece.

“Few monuments in our country honor women in leadership,” Sisk said. “When I read that Ernie believed that he could not have operated a successful business without his equal partner in it, Willa, I requested that we include her in the monument’s design.”

The sculpture, featuring Willa arranging flowers in the foreground while Ernie works with several young employees behind her in the kitchen, was designed to allow viewers to actually sit at the table next to Willa.

The sculpture was funded by Casella Construction, Norm Cohen, Jane and Steve Costello, Gerry Fernandez, Green Mountain Power’s charitable fund, Melinda Humphrey, Foley Services, Roots and The Bakery, Rutland Blooms, the Rutland Branch of the NAACP, and Ted Balestreri. 

 The Downtown Rutland Sculpture Trail is a collaboration of the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center, Green Mountain Power, MKF Properties, and Vermont Quarries, which donates all the stone for the sculptures.

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