New Eats on the Mother Road
Discover delicious new eats on Rt. 66
The El Bebe Gordito is a Mexican-inspired rice bowl available at Bodhi’s Bowl in the Mother Road Market. Photos by Laura Araujo
James Wegner didn’t grow up in Oklahoma—or in the United States for that matter. But when the Canadian meteorologist fell in love with an American, he gave up a career and life in Edmonton, Alberta, and moved south to the Sooner State.
Upon arrival, Wegner decided on a career change. He enrolled at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee and completed a degree in culinary arts. After graduation he went to work as a sous chef at La Villa Restaurant, a fine dining venue housed at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa. There he gained valuable kitchen experience—but the American dream had captured his heart. He aspired to open a restaurant of his own.
Cyrus Avery didn’t grow up in Oklahoma either. Known as the Father of Route 66, the Pennsylvania-born, Missourian moved to Tulsa around the time of statehood in 1907. He served on several state and national highway associations and was an important player in building up the Mother Road. Under Avery’s leadership, Route 66 became an anchor for the American dream as diners, motels, gas stations and attractions sprang up along the roadway.
Fast forward a century and the Mother Road Market—Oklahoma’s first food hall—is making the American dream possible for modern entrepreneurs like Wegner. The vibrant foodie destination, located on Route 66 in Tulsa, opened on November 2, 2018, and has become a popular new stop along the historic highway.
How it All Began
As a recent law school graduate, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation CEO Elizabeth Ellison, found herself dabbling in the food industry. But taking her business to the next level was a challenge.
“When I graduated, I had a side hustle baking cupcakes. I had a website, and I would sell to friends and family. The idea for Kitchen 66 and the Mother Road Market grew out of the challenges I faced starting my business,” Ellison says.
Her initial goal was to decrease barriers for food entrepreneurs in the Tulsa area. Ellison spent time researching food incubators and visited a number of food halls across the globe. She decided to combine the two—a food incubator and food hall—into one. For two years, she tested her business concept in a 1950s cafeteria in downtown Tulsa.
With food entrepreneurs in support of the program, and Tulsans excited to try new local food options, her concept was validated. In 2018, she went all in and opened the Mother Road Market on Route 66.
Photo by Laura Araujo
The food hall is housed in the Scrivner-Stevens Building, a grocery distribution warehouse built in 1939. Today the 27,000-square-foot space is home to more than 20 restaurant and retail concepts. Barbecue, burgers, fried chicken, pizza, tacos and sandwiches—all with a unique spin—are served on metal trays lined with Mother Road Market parchment. Add a scoop of craft ice cream for dessert and travelers are sure to head back to the road refreshed. Retailers sell Route 66 memorabilia, gifts, home items, toys, and Oklahoma-made products. All of this is set in an urban warehouse atmosphere, arranged against the backdrop of bright murals on the building’s brick walls, and accented with colorful, modern seating areas.
“Part of our vision is to create culture around food and bring people together through food,” says Elizabeth Frame Ellison, CEO of Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation (LTFF), the group behind the Mother Road Market. “We are looking to set a precedent of innovation in food in Oklahoma.”
One way LTFF is innovating is by supporting local entrepreneurs through the Kitchen 66 launch program, a food business incubator headquartered at the Mother Road Market. Kitchen 66 takes those who have an idea for a restaurant or consumer packaged good, food truck or catering business and walks with them from idea to market.
“We are looking to find a low-risk way for startups to test their concepts,” Ellison says. “The failure rate for food startups is 95% in Oklahoma. We hope with our launch program and assisted startup we can turn this from a 95% failure rate to 95% success rate.”
In 2017, Wegner applied for the Kitchen 66 launch program and was accepted into the fall class. He came into it with a broad idea of his concept: a restaurant serving gourmet rice bowls, inspired by flavors from across the globe.
“My wife and I have been lucky enough to travel a fair bit and taste a wide array of foods, and I wanted to share this with Tulsa,” he says.
The Kitchen 66 program helped him refine his concept through classes on how to start a food business, mentoring and networking opportunities. The program also provided him access to affordable commercial kitchen space and connected him with sales and distribution opportunities.
The Mother Road Market’s Takeover Cafe allows Kitchen 66 program participants—and anyone with a food handler’s permit and insurance—to “pop up” for a day, a week, or longer. Some of the businesses that utilize the cafe are startups, food trucks looking for more exposure, or already established businesses testing out new concepts.
“James popped up in the previous version of our Takeover Cafe every Wednesday,” says Kitchen 66 Program Director Robbie Wing. “He would try out one or two new bowls and provide a survey on top. He asked for feedback on everything from the food to the product label and the cutlery. He really took advantage of the space.”
According to Ellison, the Takeover Cafe has been invaluable to food entrepreneurs who are able to test their recipes, customer service, pricing, timing and more—all without an upfront investment.
Ultimately, Wegner’s concept, Bodhi’s Bowl—named after the oldest of his three kids—was selected for one of four spaces reserved for Kitchen 66 graduates when the Mother Road Market launched. They have supported Wegner with subsidized rent and have connected him to interest-free financing opportunities that have helped his business to thrive.
“Getting a spot at the Mother Road Market was beyond fortunate—a bit of a miracle,” Wegner says.
When guests first enter the food hall, they can grab a colorful “experience card” that will help them to discover all the Mother Road Market has to offer. Cards also help those with special diets or allergies find suitable food options. Near the front entrance is a space for kids to play and a private space for nursing moms. Out back, a 9,000-square-foot covered patio provides diners views of downtown Tulsa and abundant space for little ones to run. Families can golf their way from Chicago to Malibu on a nine-hole, Route 66-themed putt-putt course.
Photo by Laura Araujo
A popular destination at the Market, Bodhi’s Bowl features seven gourmet rice bowls—plus rotating specials. The chef’s favorite is the Red Bird Bangkok, a Thai coconut curry bowl with chicken, green beans and peanut-cucumber salad. His in-laws from India inspired the Chakra Chana vegetarian chickpea masala bowl with eggplant, spinach and coconut curry rice. And the Poutine bowl—crispy French fries smothered in beef gravy with cheese curds—honors Wegner’s Canadian roots.
For Wegner, Bodhi’s Bowl is a dream realized.
“My restaurant is working; I’m making money. I’m able to pay a good wage to my employees,” he says. “I don’t believe Bodhi’s Bowl would exist without this organization. Suffice it to say it has been a blessing on another level.”
By supporting Oklahoma entrepreneurs, the Mother Road Market has also found its place in making the American dream possible: during its first year, the Market generated $10 million in revenue; Route 66 travelers from across the nation and the globe have stopped in for a bite; and West Coast cities like Seattle have reached out to learn more about the innovative pairing of a food hall with a food incubator program.
Coming soon to the Mother Road
Coming in 2020 are the Shops at the Mother Road Market, a retail expansion just north of the food hall. The new space will house several Tulsa-based businesses including a kids book shop, a Latin American food and design shop, a beauty and lifestyle shop, and a coffee and barware supply shop.
The Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation is also working in a public-private partnership with the city of Tulsa to bring improvements to the area around the Mother Road Market. In the next couple years, visitors can expect to see wider sidewalks, more trees, better lighting, and an enhanced public area.
“We live in an agricultural state. We know most of our state’s income comes from small business. We asked ourselves how could we marry the farmer and agriculture system with the restaurant industry and help everyone win more—and it has been more successful than our wildest dreams,” Ellison says.
It’s safe to speculate that if Avery were to visit this new Route 66 destination, the Father of the Mother Road would be proud.
Plan Your Visit
Mother Road Market
1124 S. Lewis Ave.
Tulsa, OK 74104
10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
To learn more, visit www.motherroadmarket.com