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Oklahoma Restaurant Gives Former Inmates a New Lease on Life

Author: CL Harmon
Category: Business
Date Published: October 11, 2018
Angela Ellis’ Gar­den Grows Pros­per­i­ty & Har­vests Hope
CL Har­mon, Lead Author, Osage Nation Member
22 March 2016
Say­ing that some­thing is crim­i­nal has been an expres­sion that gets tossed around to describe a sit­u­a­tion in a neg­a­tive light. But Angela Ellis of Tul­sa is giv­ing a whole new mean­ing to that old expression…and it tastes so good it ought to be illegal.
“I want­ed to cre­ate a busi­ness mod­el that direct­ly affect­ed the women in the state of Okla­homa that were com­ing out of incar­cer­a­tion,” Ellis said. She had some insight that most peo­ple aren’t aware of because of her job with the Okla­homa State Depart­ment of Career Tech where she worked in eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment on the state lev­el. In this capac­i­ty, she learned that every indus­try in the state had issues with acquir­ing a qual­i­ty work­force. The issue got her think­ing about a solu­tion which led to the real­iza­tion that an entire sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion was over­looked. This was an idea that she would put to good use at a lat­er date.

She would even­tu­al­ly move from Law­ton to Tul­sa where she found it dif­fi­cult to gain employ­ment in her cho­sen field. Ellis would turn this prob­lem into an oppor­tu­ni­ty to put her the­o­ry of uti­liz­ing that over­looked sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion to the test. She began her first busi­ness out of her church and start­ed the Sug­ar Rush Bak­ery. But instead of look­ing at resumes when it was time to hire employ­ees, she began look­ing at ex-con­victs. She knows that it is dif­fi­cult for peo­ple who make good choic­es to suc­ceed in life and so it must be exceed­ing­ly more dif­fi­cult for those with a crim­i­nal record. This knowl­edge brought her to the real­iza­tion that she had to do some­thing to help these peo­ple. She believes in her heart that these peo­ple deserve an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bet­ter them­selves if they are will­ing to try.

Sys­tem Failure

“The sys­tem is set up for these peo­ple to fail and go right back to what they were doing that ini­tial­ly land­ed them in prison,” Ellis said. She explained that she began focus­ing on women who had chil­dren. As a moth­er of four, she under­stood the desire for these women com­ing out of prison to pro­vide for their chil­dren. They need­ed a chance to prove they could be pro­duc­tive par­ents and mem­bers of soci­ety; a vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble objec­tive to achieve when every employ­ment door is slammed on them because of their history.

She believes in this endeav­or as being a recipe for suc­cess, and she has been right. The bak­ery was work­ing, and for over 2.5 years she was able to employ women in a part-time capac­i­ty. But this was not enough. She under­stood that if these women were ever going to be able to make it, they would need full-time employ­ment. Last year she took a huge leap of faith and began set­ting up shop in a brick and mor­tar that would be her very own. Eight weeks ago Le Jardin Eatery opened in Bix­by staffed with ex-con­victs and a menu full of unique cui­sine. Sug­ar Rush Bak­ery is also still in oper­a­tion and con­tin­ues oper­at­ing out of her church.

A Dif­fer­ent Perspective

Not all of her employ­ees are ex-con­victs, but they are the major­i­ty, Ellis not­ed. She fur­ther knew that the spec­trum for those who need­ed a help­ing hand extend­ed beyond those with felonies. These include sub­stance abusers, those suf­fer­ing from pover­ty and oth­ers with dra­mat­ic life-chang­ing events. An exam­ple of such an event might be a divorced house­wife with no mar­ketable skills to enter the work­force. All of these peo­ple deserve a chance to prove them­selves, Ellis stat­ed. She has an old-fash­ioned view when it comes to hir­ing. She looks at the per­son and sees their capa­bil­i­ties, will­ing­ness to suc­ceed and dri­ve as opposed to so many busi­ness­es in today’s job mar­ket that focus on edu­ca­tion, expe­ri­ence, and appear­ance. She has even hired those who have com­mit­ted vio­lent crimes because she feels that if these peo­ple seek her out for employ­ment as opposed to return­ing to a crim­i­nal ele­ment, they are attempt­ing to make a pos­i­tive go for the future.

Her com­pas­sion aside, Ellis is a real­ist and will do what she must when employ­ees don’t fol­low the rules. Le Jardin and Sug­ar Rush Bak­ery are busi­ness­es after all, and there are expec­ta­tions to be met. In addi­tion, she does not tol­er­ate gos­sip and atti­tudes reflect­ing ‘that’s not my job.’ Those are quick tick­ets to unem­ploy­ment because she knows that for the endeav­ors to suc­ceed, they must be a fam­i­ly and work as a team. She explained that those who strug­gle with drug addic­tion are the ones most like­ly to fail, but as long as they make an effort she will help them. As a Chris­t­ian, she reach­es out to these peo­ple and goes beyond just being an employ­er. She talks with them, reads devo­tion­als at work, offers to take them to court dates and even pro­vide raise incen­tives to those will­ing to take class­es which offer bet­ter­ment to their lives.

“I love doing this. It’s reward­ing, frus­trat­ing and heart-wrench­ing at the same time. But it’s an hon­or to get to serve the Lord. For me, it’s a priv­i­lege to impact some­one else’s life in a pos­i­tive way, but there is no pedestal in the work­place upon which I stand because we are all sin­ners and I am very trans­par­ent and talk with them about mine”
A Labor of Love

“I love doing this. It’s reward­ing, frus­trat­ing and heart-wrench­ing at the same time. But it’s an hon­or to get to serve the Lord. For me, it’s a priv­i­lege to impact some­one else’s life in a pos­i­tive way, but there is no pedestal in the work­place upon which I stand because we are all sin­ners and I am very trans­par­ent and talk with them about mine,” Ellis said. She keeps a hum­ble atti­tude, fol­low­ing the Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal of humil­i­ty. She leads by exam­ple even keep­ing with the dress code she expects of her employ­ees. She asks noth­ing of them that she will not do her­self and treats them with the same respect she expects.

“I believe this my call­ing,” Ellis said. She seems to have tak­en this call­ing with open arms. Her life is revolved around help­ing oth­ers to live hap­pi­er and health­i­er lives. In addi­tion to help­ing ex-con­victs and down-trod­den, she has even start­ed a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion to help any­one. Life’s Food – Nour­ish­ment for the Soul takes ones’ spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, fam­i­ly, intel­li­gence, recre­ation and phys­i­cal fit­ness then ana­lyzes each to see how each can be bet­ter. It focus­es on the whole per­son and works on the phi­los­o­phy that each per­son is a cir­cle. For the cir­cle to remain unbro­ken, there must be a bal­ance in the person’s life. The orga­ni­za­tion works to help peo­ple find and main­tain that bal­ance. They accom­plish this by teach­ing class­es about finances, par­ent­ing and oth­er aspects of life edu­cat­ing them as to meth­ods that help them find and main­tain that bal­ance. It also offers fel­low­ship with oth­ers which opens the doors for friend­ships and social activ­i­ties. Ellis funds this orga­ni­za­tion through prof­its from her bak­ery and restau­rant. She has recent­ly begun fundrais­ing as the orga­ni­za­tion con­tin­ues to grow.

Time Served

As for that taste which is so good, it should be crim­i­nal; Le Jardin offers what she calls glob­al cui­sine. She explained that is a com­pi­la­tion of her children’s favorite foods and hers which is com­prised most­ly of break­fast foods. She also want­ed to add a Euro­pean café feel with a vari­ety of cof­fees and serv­ing break­fast and brunch all day. They have a smoked salmon eggs Bene­dict, Bel­gium waf­fles, hot cakes filled with ricot­ta cheese served with maple bacon syrup, caramelized bananas and fresh berries and a big break­fast burg­er with a fried egg to name a few. She said the food is amaz­ing and quips “it’s almost like a five-star restaurant…almost.”

“You can’t com­pare us to oth­er nice restau­rants because our mis­sion is dif­fer­ent. We are more of a train­ing ground than one of the four or five-star restau­rants in Tul­sa that focus heav­i­ly on both food and ser­vice. We may look like one of those restau­rants when you walk in and taste like one when you eat, but our ser­vice has had its chal­lenges. But we are over­com­ing that chal­lenge,” Ellis said. Oh, and if you are won­der­ing what Le Jardin means, it trans­lates to ‘The Gar­den’ in French. A fit­ting name con­sid­er­ing Ellis uses hydro­pon­ic tow­ers to grow her herbs and is prepar­ing to buy prop­er­ty where she will grow a full gar­den to sup­ply the restau­rant. Of course, there is the con­nec­tion to the Gar­den of Eden too which Ellis also men­tioned dur­ing the interview.

Saint & Sinner

Dur­ing the inter­view, the top­ic of how one per­son can make a dif­fer­ence, even change the world came up. What was so inter­est­ing to me was not that we share this view, but the real­iza­tion that so few peo­ple seem to place faith in those who have fail­ures or are lost in mis­for­tune. Ellis not only real­ized this but chose to become that one per­son who would help change the world. She has made a dif­fer­ence by chang­ing the world of every­one she employs and that offers them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do the same in another’s life. You might say she is a saint with just enough sin­ner in her to know falling in the gar­den makes con­victs of us all, but falling doesn’t always have to be a life sentence.

Le Jardin Eatery is locat­ed at 12345 S. Memo­r­i­al Dri­ve and is open 6 am to 3 pm Tues­day – Sunday.



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