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.
“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,” 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.
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.