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Ronda Rich: 1 overheard conversation turns into 2 friendships
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It is a solid friendship of two like-minded Southerners that started, of all places, in a high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills.

This was several years before I met my future husband who was working in an office a couple of miles up the street.

I shall always be grateful to the good Lord for that moment in time for that coincidence, or rather collision, of Southerners bumping into each other who began a conversation. Through that, I found my dear friend, Walt Ehmer.

A man overheard the chatter between my friend Kim and me. He grinned and approached the table.

“Where y’all from?” he drawled.

“North Carolina,” Kim replied.

“Georgia,” I said.

He stuck out his hand and said “Birmingham, Alabama.”

He was Hatton Smith, president of the family-owned Royal Cup coffee company.

“I’ll send y’all some coffee,” he said, after half an hour conversation.

Later that night, Kim commented on how she was looking forward to the coffee Hatton was sending, because she loves Royal Cup coffee. It’s all that she and her husband serve at their businesses.

I rolled my eyes.

“That man forgot us as soon as he walked out of there,” I said.

I was wrong. Two big boxes of coffee beat us home from Los Angeles.

I wrote a column about the uniting of three Deep South kindred spirits. It prompted a note from Walt, who became one of my favorite people. Certainly the closest new friend I made in the past decade or two.

“I sell waffles for Waffle House in Atlanta,” he wrote. “We have done business with Hatton and his brother, Bill, since the 1970s. Always on a handshake (and) never a contract. He’s a true Southern gentleman and you caught the essence of that in your article.”

This note began our friendship. I thought Walt Ehmer was, perhaps, in supplies or distribution for Waffle House. The person in charge of purchasing from vendors.

“I’m sending you a package,” he wrote a month or so later. “I can’t be outdone by Hatton.”

When the box of Waffle House merchandise, including a box of hash browns, arrived, Walt’s card was enclosed.

“President?” I said aloud while standing on the back porch with a Waffle House T-shirt in one hand and the card in the other.

In the years that followed, Walt became such a good friend neither of us has ever hesitated to call the other for a favor. Most times, though, we just call to check in.

We have a Thanksgiving tradition, though. It’s become an important part of the day. Walt works every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day (Waffle House’s biggest day) at a store in Atlanta. Actually, he usually hits three or four stores. Whichever stores need the most help, he’ll be there greeting, pouring coffee, sweeping the floor and washing dishes.

Waffle House management, not just Walt, are like that. They’re hands-on in stores and every third weekend of the month, the executive management works a third shift somewhere.

It’s our tradition to call and wish the other “Happy Thanksgiving” and chat briefly. We may not have talked to each other for two months, but we sure will on Thanksgiving. I called him first last year, but the year before as Tink and I were having coffee, the phone rang and Walt’s name showed up.

“Dadgum! Walt beat me,” I said. “I wanted to call him first.”

See, I figure a man who starts waiting on customers at 5 a.m. deserves not to have to stop his duties and call me when I’m lingering over coffee.

This year may be a bit different. After Walt finishes working at a few Waffle Houses, the Tinkers are hopeful he will join us for our annual Thanksgiving supper. No hash browns, smothered or covered. Just turkey, dressing, homemade biscuits and Royal Cup coffee.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at Her column appears Tuesdays and on