A little over ten years ago, we opened a place called Joe Momma’s next to some batting cages at All Star Sports Complex. After trying and failing to drum up support and investors for a downtown location, I cobbled together $20,000 from my savings and from friends and family to open a small little pizza shop in south Tulsa. I was just hoping to prove myself there as a first step towards opening downtown, which had been my dream. I felt like if I could make that work, I might be able to convince people that it could work downtown. Remember, most people weren’t so optimistic about downtown Tulsa back then.
Looking back, it’s probably a good thing it went like it did, as I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot those first few years. I learned how to repair drywall, do basic plumbing and electrical, and fix an oven and a mixer. I learned bookkeeping and even learned how to be a better manager (still working on this one). I was dumb and stubborn and probably a real mess to be around a lot of the time.
After years of failing and learning and improving, by some miracle, we opened in downtown Tulsa in 2008. Again, even my most stubborn resolve was no match for my overwhelming inexperience, which had us constantly figuring it out on the fly. Joe Momma’s should have failed a thousand times, and it would have, if not for the support of an incredible group of employees and some very encouraging investors.
We’ve seen wonderful times in our ten years.We’ve supported employees as they’ve left the nest to launch their own concepts. We’ve celebrated a national TV appearance and have enjoyed our front row seat to the revitalization of Tulsa’s downtown.We’ve seen staff marriages and even babies. We’ve also seen loss. We’ve cried with our family as we’ve lost loved ones and have been there for each other through life’s harsher seasons. The restaurant business is unique. It’s full of highs and lows, and the nature of the work and the culture surrounding it builds life-long friendships. The thing is, restaurants are about people. That’s why I got into this business. That’s why us restaurant people do it. We love working with our friends and making things together. We love the immediate satisfaction of making something for someone and seeing them enjoy it. It is a business built for artists and creative people, but mostly, it’s just a business that’s all about serving and loving human beings. Not many things are more intimate than sharing food and drink.
At my best, I’ve remembered that and have worked to invest in, encourage and support those people. At my worst, I’ve been caught up in the newest crisis or the next project, or the frustration and depression of an overly busy life and forgotten that it’s always about the people first. I am, after all, a person, prone to the messes and mistakes as anyone else, and definitely prone to allowing my emotions to overrule my true intent. The funny thing is, when you’re in it with people, they’ll definitely see your flaws, but they’ll also experience your humanity. Labels and assumptions fall apart when we know each other and grace and understanding have room to prevail.
Last week, Joe Momma’s had a fire. It’s not devastation, but it’s pretty bad. It’s going to take a little while to rebuild the space. The community has been overwhelmingly supportive. I’ve enjoyed reading the stories of people who went on first dates and got engaged and even married there, who celebrated milestones, and built family traditions at Joe Momma’s – the stories about people.
Our building will never be the same. The artist in me that likes to decorate and renovate isn’t that bummed about that. I’ll enjoy the work of building it back. The unique blessing in this is that our people will also never be the same. Our staff has come together, worked hard, and gotten their hands dirty. I’ve enjoyed hearing from former employees, calling to lend a hand or wish us a speedy recovery, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know a wave of employees that frankly, I didn’t know very well. See, I used to work in the kitchen or at the expo or as a host or whatever. When we were a smaller company and before I ran for public office, I was more directly involved with the day to day of the business. I knew everyone in the restaurant well at one time. We hung out at each other’s houses. We went out after work together. As we grew and as my profile became a public one, I started to close off. The more beat up I got in the paper’s comment section or on facebook or by the cool kid regulars at downtown bars that were “downtown before me,” the more I subconscously hid away. The events of my life these last few years helped turn me into more of a recluse, and I’ve lost touch with people a bit. The fire has been a reminder that the real loss for me isn’t my restaurant, it’s the relationships in the restaurant. That was the reason I got into this business. That was why I ran for office, even. I wanted to help people and I wanted to help make Tulsa a great city for our young creative people.
So yes, the fire is sad. The down-time is frustrating, but we’ll build it back and we’ll be better than ever, because loss has a way of bringing people together, and I’m excited to build it back with the people I’ve got and to do it together with them. I’m so grateful to all of the people who have been a part of our success along the way. Thank you to my family for sticking with me, to my partners for believing in me and for your patience with me, and to all of my incredible employees for your work, your investment, your time, your ideas, and your resolve. We’ll do even better the next time around.
P.S. I’ll put a few pictures of the inside of the space on facebook or instagram for you morbid and curious souls. Here’s one to tide you over. It’s not pretty!