TULSA — James and Brooke Shrader met in Tulsa, Okla. in 1996. At the time, James was working as a chef in a large hotel, and then for a few private restaurants. It was evident even then, that James' passion was in the private sector of the restaurant industry.
The couple now owns three local restaurants, Palace Cafe and Prairie Fire Pie, both located on Cherry Street, and Kitchen 27 in the Philbrook Museum.
In 2001, the space where Palace Cafe now stands was originally the 'Teddy Bear Store.' The previous owner had decided to close the shop and retire. While the Shraders drove past the empty store on the corner of 15th Street and South Peoria Avenue, they spotted a 'For Rent' sign in the window. At that moment, a vision was born and the couple knew this was the place for the restaurant of their dreams. They borrowed funds from family members and opened Palace Cafe in 2002.
"Palace Cafe is our flagship restaurant. It is a fine dining restaurant that we built out in a DIY way initially, and then invested in a total remodel in 2011, which is the restaurant you experience today," Brooke shared with 2 Works for You.
Then, they both opened Prairie Fire Pie in 2017.
"[The Prairie Fire Pie] is the realization of James' passion for wood-fired pizza in a west coast style. He was raised in Seattle, and it is the style of pizza he loves and wanted to bring to Tulsa," Brooke said.
In March 2018, Kitchen 27 was reopened as the new restaurant in the Philbrook Museum of Art.
"We were approached by Philbrook to take over the food service in the museum and it was something that James was very passionate about, working with Scott Stulen to reinvent the restaurant at Philbrook to match the current direction of the museum," Brooke said.
The Shraders have run their three restaurants with around 50 employees.
Around the middle of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to escalate. The Shraders were concerned with what this would mean for the future of their businesses.
"Some restaurants were voluntarily shutting down, while others were staying open, it was a confusing time of uncertainty," Brooke said.
On March 17, Mayor Bynum issued an executive order closing all in-restaurant dining in the City of Tulsa.
Brooke used to work in the healthcare field and understood why the ruling to shut down in-dining was necessary, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in crowded environments.
"As a restaurant owner, I was devastated thinking of our employees who depend on us for their livelihood. We quickly started brainstorming. Based on the current guidelines, and what we could do to produce revenue so we wouldn’t have to lay off our entire staff. We quickly [started] the process of redeveloping our business model to adjust to this sudden change," Brooke said.
The Shraders had to make the difficult decision to lay off 85 percent of their staff.
"People who rely on us for their income, they are scared right now and uncertain of what to do. I have had to help a few through the process of filing for unemployment benefits. Their futures are uncertain right now," Brooke said.
Brooke and James have had to make extreme changes to the way they run their restaurants. When staff members arrive for their shifts, their temperatures are taken, employees must wash their hands every 15 minutes and door handles are sanitized with bleach after anyone exits or enter their establishments. Pens are even sanitized after each use.
"We have had to change our entire business model, as most restaurants have, to adjust to the current climate. We started curbside pickup and take out only on Wednesday, March 18 in compliance with the executive order," Brooke said.
The Shraders have been so moved by how their staff members have responded to their decision to move forward with their three businesses.
"Our staff are hardworking, service-oriented people. Some are still coming in to help prepare food even though they are not being paid, they just want to help and be of service," Brooke said.
The Shraders are in-turn, doing what they can to support all their employees that have been affected by the foreboding, present reality, brought about by the pandemic.
They have personally started an Employee Relief Fund, with their own salaries to support all the staff members that they had to let go of. 50% of all gift cards purchased, will also go to the employees and their families who have lost their jobs.
"The response has been humbling, our clientele has stepped up and shown such generosity to our cause. We are halfway to our $25,000 goal, only two days into the campaign!" Brooke said.
Brooke encourages everyone in the community to support locally, owned restaurants.
"The silver lining is definitely the outpouring of support from our restaurant clientele. It has been humbling to see everyone show such a sense of community," Brooke said.
The Shraders are currently offering take out and curbside pickup at both Palace Cafe and Prairie Fire Pie.
They are open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
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