food fighters
Oklahoma Today|January/February 2021
AS A PANDEMIC THREATENED TO SHUTTER THEIR BUSINESSES FOR GOOD, OKLAHOMA RESTAURANT OWNERS MARSHALED THEIR COURAGE, GRIT, AND CREATIVITY TO MAKE DINING OUT A SAFE AND ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE FOR ALL.
RANDY KREHBIEL

DEMETRA BAILEY NEVER wanted to operate a restaurant; she did it to save her family’s busi-ness. Bailey and her mother, Ruby Roberson, started B&B Catering eighteen years ago. Over time, their enterprise grew to include Bailey’s daughter Doricia and granddaughter Jazlyn, who Demetra says has a real flair for the culinary arts. B&B added an events center in 2014 and at the start of 2020 had sixteen employees. They were the epitome of the multigenerational American family business.

Then COVID-19 hit, and Bailey had to make adjustments she never could’ve imagined. The weddings, family reunions, and other events on which B&B relied ceased overnight. As the pandemic stretched through the summer and into the fall, Bailey concluded her only hope was to open a restaurant to create some cash flow.

“This is the first time I’m truly scared, and I don’t know what the future holds,” Bailey said in September as she was converting a former Pizza Hut on North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City into The Kitchen by B&B Catering. “This was a crazy thing to do right now, but it’s the only thing I know to do to try to stay alive.”

Because of the pandemic, Bailey secured a better deal on the rent than she might have otherwise. Indoor seating is limited, but the location on a busy street and better set-up for takeout are big improvements over her previous spot. But time and money are running short. Without events, which have been her bread and butter, she has kept going with occasional gigs like memorial gatherings after funerals.

“It doesn’t matter if you cut all of your employees, you still have to pay your utilities and bills,” Bailey says. “The only thing I know to do is to try this one last thing.”

The pandemic disrupted supply chains and sent some food prices skyrocketing. Catfish rose by two-thirds, and lettuce nearly doubled.

“Small businesses like myself can’t compete with large chains,” Bailey says. “People are still eating. That’s a good thing. How they are eating—that’s what we have to adapt to.”

A FEW MILES AWAY in far north Oklahoma City, Provision Concepts also has learned to adapt, though on a different scale and with a different outlook. Where B&B had to adapt to survive, Provision viewed the pandemic as something of an opportunity. Already committed to three new projects, the company also took advantage of COVIDdepressed rent to occupy a closed hamburger restaurant. They put $375,000 of their own money into remodeling the place—something not many small operators could do—and launched a new concept called Chicken Foot. It features fried chicken as well as cinnamon rolls made with a recipe handed down by cofounder Jeff Dixon’s mother.

“This wasn’t something I had in my back pocket,” Dixon says. “I saw the space come available, and I asked myself, ‘What does the market need, and what does the space tell me it could do?’ And off we went.”

Provision’s other establishments are fairly formal, but Dixon decided the times called for something different.

“I didn’t think guests were ready to go pay fifty bucks at a fine-dining steakhouse,” he says. “But they will pay nine bucks for some fried chicken or for a sandwich.”

Dixon says Chicken Foot now is the busiest of his company’s seven venues. Its success has prompted him to look into additional locations and new concepts following the same business plan. He says he has been aggressive about reopening his restaurants while staying within state and local restrictions. He says he takes the virus seriously—his wife is in a high-risk category—but also has to do all he can to keep his establishments in operation.

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