OWASSO — The debut of Tommy Coulter’s Owasso restaurants in late 2018 flowed from a vision of transforming a vacant, rundown lot in the heart of downtown into a burgeoning dining destination.

He opened SMOKE Woodfire Grill and MAD Eats on the heels of Owasso’s storefront expansion and beautification in its Main Street district.

“It just seemed like a good fit,” Coulter said of Tulsa’s northernmost bedroom community. “We thought there was an opportunity to come in and really kind of anchor the downtown area.”

Coulter, who also owns a local glass contracting company, stepped outside the familiar terrain of installing frames for commercial clients a decade earlier when he and executive chef Erik Reynolds opened SMOKE on Cherry Street in Tulsa. By leading a team of 140 employees toward a steady influx of profits and foot traffic across three restaurants, they had paved the way for a promising outlook for 2020.

At least that’s the way it looked in early March.

“We went through a bunch of spreadsheets, sales projections, staff … talked about what our goals were for this year,” said Coulter, 42, who had developed a three-story, 45,000-square-foot building, SEVEN6MAIN, in Owasso’s newly rebranded Redbud District to house SMOKE, and later MAD Eats, serving chef-driven, diner-style food.

“Then five days later, we’re closed,” said Coulter, who made the decision nine days before Gov. Kevin Stitt called for a shutdown of restaurants.

As the COVID-19 pandemic halted Oklahoman’s civic lives, Coulter and Reynolds laid off 130 employees across all three restaurants — around 90 in Owasso and another 40 in Tulsa. They kept 10 workers on reduced pay to provide curbside and pickup orders.

The cuts were drastic. Employees credit Coulter and Reynolds’ decisiveness and quick notification with giving them a jump on filing for unemployment benefits.

“The way everything went, they were doing everything in our interest,” said Anthony Fasano, 33, who works in SMOKE’s Owasso kitchen serving beef and brisket entrees.

The abrupt transition left Coulter and Reynolds with stocked inventories, expanded menus and spreadsheets marked with positive projections, but with locked doors and dining rooms full of empty seats — an unfamiliar scene for the longtime business partners.

“Our sales have increased year over year for the past 10 years in Tulsa,” Coulter said, “so we’ve never laid anybody off, ever.”

Reynolds, 54, added, “I never thought I’d see anything like this in my lifetime.”

Anne Stankeivicz, a server at SMOKE, wipes down a table during business hours at the Owasso restaurant. (Art Haddaway)

Facing Challenges

Three days after closing SMOKE’s and MAD Eats’ doors, Coulter and Reynolds transitioned to curbside service at Owasso’s SEVEN6MAIN building, eventually shutting down the Tulsa branch. They funneled resources and supplies from the three restaurants to the central location, where they operated under the new restrictions.

Curbside offerings drew consistent traffic for lunch and dinner, though the service yielded about 20 percent of the restaurants’ normal profits.

Said Reynolds, “It was keeping some people working and offering service to Owasso. We weren’t making money off of it.”

Coulter and Reynolds were among the first in the region to be approved for the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program loan. In mid-April they began rehiring a majority of their employees, including all of their kitchen staff.

The staff’s return came shortly before Stitt gave restaurants and other nonessential establishments clearance to reopen on May 1. Coulter delayed the reopening of SMOKE in Owasso by a little more than a week, and then the Tulsa store as well as MAD Eats on May 18, to ensure a smooth transition for his employees.

“Getting open and trying to move forward through a bunch of unknowns, that’s the hard part,” Coulter said. “It’s hard when you have a massively unknown sales number.”

Reynolds added, “We had gotten to the point where we could pretty accurately forecast what we were going to do for the week, so it made it that much easier to plan your scheduling and your ordering. Now I have no clue, I have no idea.”

The major problem Reynolds faces is a shortage in dairy and beef products in the wake of the coronavirus, which has affected supply lines due to COVID-19 infections of workers in processing plants.

“The beef brisket, for instance, just hit the dock from my purveyor at over $6 a pound, which is unheard of (compared to) around $3.20 a pound,” Reynolds said recently. “… The new cost to bring product in has gone up across the board for us.”

Reynolds has been forced to significantly scale back his menu to reflect a limited number of items based on the availability of certain products, which still includes chopped brisket, wood-grilled salmon, beef tenderloin and New York strip.

SMOKE owner Tommy Coulter, center, talks with executive chef Erik Reynolds (left) and general manager Stephanie Weatcraft, right) during a recent meeting about their Owasso restaurant. (Art Haddaway)

Moving Forward

The shutdown came with a silver lining, Coulter said. He and his staff took the opportunity to complete a small remodel at MAD Eats, and reassess goals and strategies for the three restaurants.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of taking advantage of the time we had to go back and really look at just different parts of our business, processes and just pricing and how we do certain things,” he said.

Employees have also turned a potential tragedy into a triumph by allowing the experience to draw them closer, especially following their return to work.

“Everyone has a good connection with each other,” Zack Kittrell, 19, said. “It’s one of my biggest reasons I come into work is because of my coworkers and management. I love where I work, so it’s awesome that I’m back.”

Coulter and Reynolds echoed that sentiment.

“You’ve got people working more hours than they were before for less money, and it just kind of shows you what people are made of,” Coulter said. “They were just behind us, and we’re behind them too.”

Both owners credit residents of their hometown.

“I thank the community in Tulsa and Owasso for supporting us,” Reynolds said. “Support local businesses. They’re the people that live in your community, and it keeps that local economy strong.”

Anthony Fasano, a cook for SMOKE in Owasso, prepares a meal for guests a day after the restaurant reopened to the public amid COVID-19. (Art Haddaway)

Art Haddaway serves as the news editor for the Owasso Reporter. He is a seasoned writer of over 15 years with an extended background in print journalism. Art lives in Tulsa with his wife, Jennifer, and their fur baby, a 10-pound Brussels Griffon named Marty. Find his work here. Contact him at Art.Haddaway@owassoreporter.com.

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.

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