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The Mother Road Market seeks to build economic steam by adding innovation to the pot

Exterior of Mother Road Market on Lewis Avenue and 11th Street

Valerie Grant

Coming this fall, the Mother Road Market will provide a fun, family-friendly place to enjoy food and community, with the goal of ushering in a new golden era of culinary innovation in Tulsa. The concept will add a unique, non-profit, community outreach aspect to the food hall model found in many major cities around the world. As the latest program of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation (LTFF), the Mother Road Market will integrate its vendors with a food incubator philosophy in order to help Tulsans grow their food business ideas.

“To us, food is at the center of community,” said Elizabeth Frame Ellison, Founder of both the Mother Road Market and Kitchen 66. “There’s something really special that happens when people sit down to eat together. Disagreements become less ardent.”

The Mother Road Market facility will be located at the corner of 11th Street and South Lewis Avenue along historic Route 66 in the newly-renovated Scrivner-Stevens Grocery building. Only the Kitchen 66 resources of the Mother Road Market are currently up and running, as construction is set to continue until sometime this fall.

The program’s brand new commercial kitchen will allow aspiring food entrepreneurs to prepare their goods in a health board-certified environment complete with food prep stations, lockable ingredient shelves and cold storage lockers—all rentable to Kitchen 66 members at an affordable, subsidized rate.

The Mother Road Market’s food hall will feature its own bar called The WEL, along with a grocery stand featuring fresh produce, an indoor wall mural, and a general store for selling packaged goods like hot sauces, salsas, and candies. There will also be pop-up restaurants and a demo kitchen for cooking lessons. The outside of the Mother Road Market will include attractions like a covered dining area, a nine-hole mini golf course, and two more wall murals made by local artists.

The space will also house over 20 vendor booths which will offer subsidized rent rates, designed to help reduce the financial risk of starting a business, and allow the focus to be put primarily on testing and innovation. The booths will offer tenants the benefit of lower overhead cost compared to a brick and mortar storefront, but without the seasonal and weather-related drawbacks associated with operating a food truck.

Food industry newcomers won’t be the only ones testing their concepts in the Mother Road Market, according to LTFF Chief Communications Officer Ashley Van Horne. Some booths will be rented out to local restauranteurs.

“What we found was that all these established restauranteurs like Andolini’s, Lone Wolf, and Mr. Nice Guys were like, ‘I’ve had this concept in my back pocket that I’ve wanted to do for years, but I’ve never had the chance,’” Van Horne said.

Some of those new concepts have already started a buzz.

The highly-anticipated Chicken and the Wolf, brainchild of Tulsa flavor juggernauts Lone Wolf Banh Mi, will feature Nashville-style hot chicken sandwiches and other variants on the theme of chili oil-infused fried chicken. Surprises like lemon-dill aioli, radish, and arugula will carry on Lone Wolf’s spirit, offering a unique twist on traditional formulas using quality ingredients.

Several other Tulsa food icons are also jumping into the game. Metropolis, from the owners of Andolini’s, will feature regional sandwiches and hot dogs from around the country. Mr. Nice Guys’ booth, Mr. Nice Guys Shrimp Shack, will be leaving behind the restaurant’s usual late night spicy comfort food fare for a beachy seafood concept featuring coconut shrimp, chips and guacamole, and Cuban-style milkshakes known as batidos. Trencher’s Crustacean Station, a lobster roll concept by the sandwich gurus at Trencher’s Deli, will also occupy a booth in the Mother Road Market.

Since 2016, Adele Beasley, Lobeck Taylor Director of Food Innovation, has helped over 100 food entrepreneurs on behalf of Kitchen 66. Over half of those businesses were women-owned, and the program has serviced immigrants from more than 10 different countries. Beasley said she’s learned to spot a good program candidate by their level of personal drive.

“You can see that in somebody’s eyes,” she said. “They have the passion to make something successful. That’s more important than where they went to school, if they got a degree, or where they’re from.”

James Wegner, a graduate of Kitchen 66’s Launch program, is one such success story. The four-month course aimed at teaching entrepreneurship to aspiring food industry companies helped Wegner flesh out his multinational rice bowl concept, Bodhi’s Bowl. Inspired by the versatile grain, his creations draw inspiration from the cuisines of India, Korea, Egypt, the Philippines, Canada and beyond.
He’s since grown his business and has been receiving great feedback.

“We had one guy come up and say he hadn’t had a curry that good since he was actually in Thailand,” said Wegner.

Soon, Bodhi’s Bowl will include a “bowl of the month,” which will be the result of collaboration between Wegner and the winner of a monthly drawing. The lucky winner will get to sit down with Wegner and work out a unique rice bowl recipe together based on the winner’s own concept.

“I think something like Kitchen 66 should exist in pretty much every community, to be honest with you,” Wegner said.

Bakeshop, a women-owned business fronted by another graduate of the Launch program, started out with only one product: a perfect loaf of sourdough. Emily Landry and her partners wanted to take the same quality in their sourdough recipe and carry that out into other offerings.

Landry recalled how Kitchen 66 helped Bakeshop get to the next level as a business. “We were so focused on one item, and they were really good at helping us really understand that product,” she said. “How do we talk about it? How do we price it?” With answers to these questions, they began growing and have since added pastries, soups, snacks, and more to their repertoire.

Teaching their customers how to get the most out of their bread purchase has become a key element of Bakeshop’s mission. They found that something as simple as providing certain customers a link to a $10 bread knife was able to open up new doors for them.

“We have a certain perspective on food. We want people to feel empowered to make that thing their own,” Landry said.

Jeff Thompson, general manager of the Mother Road Market, sees empowerment and growth on any scale as the key metric for success. “As a non-profit, we get to put our profitability as a secondary consideration to the profitability of our tenants, because we really exist to drive success for them. Did people at every stage of development get to take their business to the next level as a result of being here?”

Discussing the significance of the Mother Road Market venture, Jeff suggested a certain symbolic synchronicity between the Mother Road Market model and the idea of Route 66 itself. After all, Route 66 is a road, and roads inevitably lead somewhere else. Thompson sees the Mother Road Market as a way to help Tulsa pave a route to a new future as a dynamic and innovative food city.

“There’s not a template for it,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of unknowns for us, but that’s what makes it exciting. That’s what makes entrepreneurship and innovation fun: You’re always kind of stepping out into the unknown.”

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