Daily News Journal, Mealand Ragland-Hudgins, March 5, 2012 – Major Jim Walls’ military service helped him fulfill more than his childhood dream of becoming a pilot.
It also allowed him to become a groundbreaking restaurateur in Smyrna. Walls, founder of Omni Hut on Lowry Street, died Sunday at the age of 92. Funeral arrangements had not been confirmed Monday afternoon.
Walls grew up in Iowa and joined the Army Air Corps at the age of 20. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when the base was attacked by the Japanese and went on to serve for 20 years, before retiring from Smyrna’s Sewart Air Base.
While stationed in Hawaii, Walls worked the kitchen in a local Chinese restaurant. He would often try out new recipes on fellow soldiers and eventually, a colonel asked him to cook for the unit.
He opened Omni Hut in 1960, shortly after retiring from service. The restaurant is based on the cooking styles and recipes he learned abroad. About three days after it opened, customers kept telling him, “That’s the best Polynesian food I’ve ever had.” So he switched the theme of the Omni Hut to Polynesian.
State Rep. Mike Sparks said Walls gave him his first job at the restaurant at the age of 13.
“I remember him telling me that the banker he went to get a loan said he’d only be in business about three months,” Sparks said. “Maj. Walls was a visionary and he really walked to the beat of his own drum. He had a belief in himself that he could make (Omni Hut) successful.”
Over the years, Walls opened the restaurants Ports of Paradise and Mahi Mahi in Nashville and the Woodshed on Lowry Street, which currently houses Smyrna Cleaners. He also oversaw operations at the Smyrna Country Club, located close to the County Clerk’s office, for several years.
Sparks, who grew up next door to Walls, said the veteran was like a father to many of Smyrna’s youth, providing more than a few of them with their first jobs.
“We’d go out in the woods and cut down trees to make some of those signs at Omni Hut. He had such a great work ethic,” Sparks said.
Ricky Potts also worked for Walls for a time. What he remembered most is the way Maj. Walls treated his customers and employees.
“He allowed us to work to get experience because we were really young men at the time. Maj. Walls always greeted people when they came in and when they left,” he said. Potts said he recently took his mother to eat at Omni Hut.
“It was upscale compared to anything else we had. Raising three kids, my family couldn’t go there to eat, but having worked there, I could explain what the menu was and what it was like,” he said.
Omni Hut remains a popular destination for those choosing to dine out, despite the bevy of restaurants on Sam Ridley Parkway. In a 2007 interview with the Smyrna A.M., Walls said the parkway’s growth hadn’t had an impact on business.
“I keep thinking something’s going to kill us, but it doesn’t,” he said then.