Remembering 'the Jackie Robinson of restaurants'

Restaurant Rewind: Ernie Royal was a quiet pioneer in changing racial attitudes. Here's why he should never be forgotten.

He’s known as “the Jackie Robinson of restaurants,” an African-American who made his name in the business back in the early ‘60s, when people of color were seldom found in the front of house, never mind with their name on the deed.

Through his dignity, business acumen and warmth for all as a host, Ernie Royal proved that the skin color of anyone you put in chef’s whites is as insignificant to their success as the sort of socks they wear. It all came down to skill and drive, the ingredients that made his Hearthside restaurant one of the most celebrated dining establishments in the country. 

Never mind that he had to pay $10,000 more than a white bidder for the place, or that it was located in Ruttledge, Vt., a community as white as the state’s legendary snowfalls.  While marchers were fighting for civil rights in the South, Royal was changing racial attitudes and setting an example for young people of color with his undeniable success. 

Yet his name is unfamiliar today to many inside or outside of the industry. This week’s edition of Restaurant Rewind, the retro-focused podcast, delivers an introduction. Host and Restaurant Business Editor At Large Peter Romeo interviews Gerry Fernandez, the CEO of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance and one of the young people who was inspired by Royal.

Learn about the quiet changemaker who opened the door to restaurant ownership for others of color.  Download this installment and every episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Restaurants bring the industry's concerns to Congress

Neary 600 operators made their case to lawmakers as part of the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference.


Podcast transcript: Virtual Dining Brands co-founder Robbie Earl

A Deeper Dive: What is the future of digital-only concepts? Earl discusses their work to ensure quality and why focusing on restaurant delivery works.


In the fast-casual sector, Chipotle laps Panera Bread

The Bottom Line: The two fast-casual restaurant pioneers have diverged over the past five years, as the burrito chain has thrived while Panera hit a wall. Here's why.


More from our partners