By Anne Cruz
Glory Walker-Wells is a manager at Wanda J’s Next Generation in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She’s also the granddaughter of Wanda J Armstrong, chef/owner of Evelyn’s Soul Food and a James Beard Award nominee. Glory runs the restaurant, which is owned by her father, Ty Walker, with the help of her five sisters and other relatives. The restaurant is located in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, which was known as Black Wall Street and was the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
My grandmother Wanda Armstrong opened the first Wanda J’s in 1974, and she’s maintained a presence in the community since then. She’s been in Tulsa with various locations around the city for over 40 years. My grandmother was about my age—I’m 25—when she opened her first restaurant. She had two children at the time, and her children were raised in the restaurant. She hired a lot of her family to work, as well as close friends that were almost considered family. That’s the way that our restaurant has operated since 1974.
My grandmother raised her kids in the restaurants. My dad raised my sisters and me in the restaurant. When we were little kids, we worked there. We were pretty much his main employees. I have five sisters—we’ve all worked at one of the restaurants at some point or another throughout our lives.
Wanda actually opened up a Wanda J’s on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street back in the 90s and called it Wanda J’s 2. They weren’t there very long, maybe a year. About 20 years later, she was asked to open another restaurant down here, and she thought it would succeed. She was a little older, so she said, “I don’t want to run it, but I can have my granddaughters or my son do it.” So they decided to name it Wanda J’s Next Generation because it was created for the next generation of our family—we opened here in Greenwood in 2016.
In the present day, I spend most of the time at Wanda J’s Next Generation. My older sister works here, too, and every now and again the other sisters will pop in and work a little bit. But this location was founded with us in mind.
I graduated from OSU in Tulsa with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and I minored in management and entrepreneurship. I always had that business mindset. As kids, we started out learning how to do dishes, then eventually learned how to put plates together, serve on the floor, take orders, and cashier. I like to say that I’ve worked in the restaurant since I was eight years old.
When I was in college, I learned a ton of things I could apply to the restaurant world. That’s what’s helped me work full-time and sail through school, because I had something realistic that I could apply my lessons to. I also briefly went to culinary school for about a year in high school. It taught me why we would do things at the restaurant certain ways.
For example, my grandmother would tell us the way that you know how to charge people is to charge three times what it costs you to produce it. If five of the restaurant’s dollars are tied up in producing a chicken fried steak, I needed to multiply that times three to figure out what I should be charging the customers. At school, they taught us about costing out and gave me a name for the concept. My grandmother already did all of her costing out, but that’s not how it was conveyed to me.
My grandmother and my dad also never used recipes. They showed you how to make a dish and they left it up to you to replicate it. Sometimes it had an effect on how consistent everything was in the restaurant. Customers would say, “Oh, I want this person to make my food.” I knew there was a downside to not using recipes, so over the recent years, I’m actually working on making recipes so that everybody can produce the same thing the same way. At school, we didn’t make any recipes, but we definitely had to follow them. That helped me write my own family’s recipes.
Operating Wanda J’s Next Generation on Black Wall Street has always been significant to me because my grandmother and my dad raised us with this entrepreneurial spirit. I really believe that the people that were here in Greenwood before us possessed that same spirit. Being a business owner isn’t easy at all. It requires a lot of time and sacrifice. My family believes in working hard and giving it their all. Those are the same qualities that the people before us had when they opened up their businesses here.
And this area has gained so much attention over the past few years because of the social issues. Being able to be a part of that and the community—telling our story and our grandmother’s story is very significant to me. I personally believe that the people here before us would be really proud.
Our community has been so supportive for the Wanda J family businesses, because 2020 was a very scary time. We had to make some adjustments as far as how we handled our day-to day-operations and cross-train our staff, but we didn’t miss a beat.
Sometimes you’d get this burst of business, and you just didn’t even know what to do. You try to prepare for each day by the previous day. We were very, very fortunate. We struggled for the first few months of the pandemic, but our community was buying food for essential workers and would use our restaurants to cater those meals. Some people would simply just drop in and say, “Hey, I’m leaving this tip for the staff.”
Working so closely with my family is definitely challenging and rewarding. When we work together, we bicker a little bit, just as you would at home. But you have to really understand and listen to your family, too. When you work with family, people have a lot of input. It can be a good thing, for sure. They care because it directly affects them, too. You want your family to have a good reputation and know they’re relying on you.
Building relationships is very important for your business. My grandmother and my dad would stop anything they were doing to talk to people. I never understood that back then. When we first started at Wanda J’s Next Generation, I was left here alone a lot. The thing that I didn’t learn in school about running a restaurant was the relationship part—my grandmother and my dad taught us that. They knew their customers. Being here without them, I had to build those relationships on my own.
Once you’ve got somebody’s name and you remember their order, their faces will light up. They’ll say, “You remember my name?” or “You remember my order?” And I say, “Yeah, you’re important.” I teach my staff that, too. We don’t just want you to come in and dine with us or take something to-go. While you’re here, we want to catch up.
I was very introverted growing up. I worked in the kitchen all the time, and when I had to force myself to go out and work on the floor at Wanda J’s Next Generation, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. You could say “Thank you for coming in” all day long, but you take it to another level when you’re like, “Hey, I really want to get to know you. I care more about you than you just coming in here and spending your money.”
My grandmother always keeps after me, saying “Make sure you’re doing what it is you want to do. I did the restaurant so that you can have a place to work.” But she says that the restaurants were her dream, so she doesn’t expect it to be our dream, too.
Growing up, I remember going to school, and I wanted to be a lawyer. For the past two years, I’ve worked on trying to go to law school, but I spent way too much of my time at the restaurant. At some point I wanted to change and do hospitality and tourism, but they didn’t have the major here in town, and I wanted to stay so that I could work at the restaurant.
When I was a kid, my family was watching cartoons, but I was all about Rachael Ray. I was trying to write down her recipes. Everybody else wanted coloring books and stuff, and I was buying cookbooks. Sometimes I remind myself that, yeah, I love my grandmother’s legacy, but there’s also something about this cooking thing that I like. That’s not to say that I have to do it the way that I do it now in the future, but I know that it is part of me. I think that this is my career path forever, and I’m just trying to figure out what direction I want to take.