Cannelton Graduate Overcomes Pandemic Challenges to Reopen Family Business

Since its reopening, Walls Drive In has had a steady stream of customers.

Makayla Hulse

Since its reopening, Walls Drive In has had a steady stream of customers.

“It had always been something I had dreamed of doing, to carry on the family business,” Harlen said. “I wanted to be able to make those same memories with my kids as they grew up and hopefully pass it down to them one day as well.”

Since she was a young girl, Cannelton High School graduate Whitney Harlen (’10) always dreamt of owning Walls’ Drive In, a local restaurant that has been in her family for generations. In November of 2015, Walls’ shut its doors, leaving the community starving for one of their favorite restaurants. Harlen thought her dream of running Walls’ would never come true. But, little did she know, her dream would become a reality, and even more surprisingly, during a pandemic.

Opening a new business is difficult enough, but doing so during a pandemic is especially challenging. Many business owners are currently struggling to keep their businesses open, let alone begin a new business venture. So far, nearly 100,000 establishments have already closed due to the pandemic. 

Harlen shared this photo and update on May 20, 2020 on the Walls’ Drive In Facebook page: “Ready for new stripes! We have done a TON of work since we decided to tackle this project! All new roof is almost finished, new insulation and drywall, a fresh coat of a bright new blue paint inside and the biggest of all…we will be adding an addition to the back of the building in the next week or two for our walk in cooler! I’m so excited to see all of it coming together.” (Photo contributed by Harlen)

However, Harlen stayed strong throughout the pandemic doing tireless work over the summer to beat the statistics. “Getting started on the building was a challenge,” said Harlen. “We were forced to wait for other businesses to receive PPP loans, so we kept getting pushed back on our bank progress, which gave us less time to work than we planned. We ended up starting in late March when we had originally planned to begin in February.”  

Once Harlen and her family worked through all of the necessary steps to opening a new business, they had to consider the social distancing guidelines and restrictions. Even though Walls’ isn’t an indoor seating restaurant, they still had to take extra precautions. Employees are screened for covid symptoms, constantly wear masks, take extra cleaning precautions, and sanitize each time after handling money or helping a customer. 

Keeping up with the ever-changing covid guidelines, covering shifts for any quarantined workers, and dealing with the employee shortage are just a few of the challenges that Harlen has faced in her new venture.

Throughout all of the hardships of opening a business in this unique situation, Harlen stays motivated. Walls meant so much to the community, and its closure left people impatiently waiting for its return. On April 28, 2020, Harlen made a post on the Walls’ Drive In Facebook page stating that Walls’ would finally reopen. The community sent a burst of support to Harlen – that post has 129 comments and over one thousand shares. 

When Walls’ held its grand opening on June 20, 2020, customers waited in line for hours for a piece of nostalgia and a bite of the best square burgers and soft serve in town.

Walls’ Drive In held its grand opening on Saturday, June 20, 2020. Customers parked along the highway and waited for hours to get a bite! (Photo contributed by Harlen via Facebook)

Former and current customer of Walls’ Jaci Herzog shared, “I am beyond excited that Walls is open again! Walls’ was a staple of my childhood. The first time our parents gave us a little bit of money and let us ride our bicycles to Walls for some ice cream was a rite of passage. It was our first taste of freedom; the first time our parents really let us go outside of the neighborhood without them with us.” 

Cannelton kindergarten teacher and former Walls employee Amanda Evans told the HiLife, “As a former employee of many years, it was a delight to hear that Whitney was reopening this gem.” Evans added, “It’s great to see it brought back to life after so many years standing still. It brings back a sense of happiness and memories for everyone young and old.”

For nearly five years, customers anxiously awaited the reopening of Walls’ Drive In. Bringing back a long-time favorite has provided our community with a bit of light during the pandemic. 

Several abandoned buildings in Cannelton have collapsed, making this news especially meaningful to the community. Perry County residents feared that the iconic Walls’ Drive In building would share the same unfortunate fate as many other historic Cannelton buildings. 

Harlen added, “I felt like we needed to make a change, and we wanted to be able to bring some life back into Cannelton. It seemed like such a shame for it to just be sitting for so long, so we took a chance and made a big jump, and this is where it’s gotten us so far!”

Through all of the challenges that Harlen has faced while reopening Walls’ Drive In, she has proved that your dreams really can come true – even in a small town, even during a global pandemic.