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How This Tulsa Chef Made Her Restaurant a ‘Safe Haven’ During the COVID-19 Crisis

Glory Wells outside of Wanda J’s restaurant in Tulsa
Courtesy of Wanda J’s
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Restaurants are in Glory Wells’s blood. Since 1974, her family has owned and operated eight food businesses in Tulsa — including the one she and her sisters currently run, Wanda J’s Next Generation, named for her grandmother. (Wanda J. Armstrong created the iconic Evelyn’s Soul Food, and Wells’s father formerly ran a restaurant just across the street.) Wanda J’s has a loyal following among the Tulsa community, thanks to its rib-sticking soul food and historic location on Black Wall Street — a prosperous majority Black business district that was also the site of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

Being scrappy is the name of the game for Wells and her family. “My dad — he is very, very creative,” Wells says. “Whenever you think you can’t do something, he is always able. Somehow, some way, he can figure out how to do something.” That attitude came in handy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, initially cutting revenue at Wanda J’s by about 40 percent, according to Wells. Instead of backing down, though, she leaned into the challenge — using it as an opportunity to improve the restaurant, and make the space a beacon of hospitality and compassion for the neighborhood during a hard time.

When the Tulsa mayor decreed that restaurants must temporarily shut down in March, Wells realized that with no one in the dining room, she could give the space a much-needed facelift — remodeling the lobby, laying new flooring, updating the furniture, and sharing the new look on Facebook. In the face of uncertainty over what restaurant dining would look like in the future, she also wanted to make sure the staff was as nimble as possible. She began cross-training everyone: Servers learned how to work in the kitchen, and cooks learned how to take orders.

Customers at Wanda J’s restaurant in Tulsa
Courtesy of Wanda J’s

Helping the Tulsa Community

But what was most important to Wells was serving the people around her. “My grandmother has been in the community since she first started,” Wells says. She hosted cooking demonstrations, donated food to schools, and continues to be well-known in the neighborhood. Inspired by Armstrong, Wanda J’s Next Generation is helping feed essential workers in Tulsa, and partnering with organizations, like the Terence Crutcher Foundation, that fight against racial inequity. Wells adds that a big part of being a community restaurant, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, is being a support for other food businesses.

“We have a lot of regulars who have their own restaurants, and we go and patronize their restaurants,” Wells says. “It is not out of obligation,” but because she believes that when more restaurants thrive, the community thrives. Plus, Wells adds, the family has a lot of institutional knowledge about restaurants to share along. For example, Michael Manning, who owns the nearby Mack’s Wings, has been helping Wells and her sisters with the renovation of the restaurant; in turn, they helped set up his point-of-sale system, and referred him to vendors. If a restaurant down the block runs out of an ingredient, Wells will run over whatever she has to spare.

Fried chicken and green beans on a plate
Courtesy of Wanda J’s

Making the Restaurant a ‘Safe Haven’

To Wells, the biggest part of being a community restaurant is being a “safe haven,” as she puts it. “One thing that we try to do is treat people the way you want to be treated,” she says. “When our customers come in, we try to get a relationship with them, make them feel welcome. We try to remember their names, remember their orders,” even if it’s just a takeout order, which Wells notes is more common these days.

The support the restaurant has subsequently received from the community — in the form of gift card purchases, takeout orders, and even just mentions on social media — has been incredibly gratifying, Wells says. There are a lot of restaurants in the Tulsa area that have permanently shut down, or completely switched their business model. But Wells looks forward to the day that her small dining room is laden with people again, and she’s not just fulfilling takeout orders.

Two people posing outside of Wanda J’s restaurant in Tulsa
Courtesy of Wanda J’s

“I would like for it to level back out and go back to where we had a lot more people dining in, because that is how we build our relationships,” she says. “We like to have a chance to talk to you, get to know you, and catch up on different things that are taking place or whatever in your life.” But until then, Wells will be at Wanda J’s, serving her community with open arms and a generous spirit — just like her family has been doing for almost 50 years.

To find ways to support Wanda J’s and other restaurants you care about, visit fb.com/SupportSmallBusiness. Keep up with chef Glory Wells by following Wanda J’s on its Facebook page, and in the meantime, you can make one of her favorite recipes below.


Glory’s Cornbread

Ingredients:

2 cups self-rising cornmeal mix

12 cup sugar

1 cup flour

2 eggs

14 cup vegetable oil

2 cups whole milk

Nonstick spray

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spray a half-size pan or cast iron skillet with nonstick spray. (Optional: Briefly heat pan in oven for no longer than two minutes.)
  3. In a large bowl mix together dry ingredients (cornmeal, sugar, and flour) with a spoon or wire whisk.
  4. Once dry ingredients are evenly mixed, add in eggs, milk, and vegetable oil. Mix together with a spoon, wire whisk, or electric mixer until smooth and evenly combined.
  5. Pour mixture into your pan of choice.
  6. Bake on center rack of oven for about 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cornbread surface is golden-brown. (Cook time varies depending on the oven.)

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