Tag Archives: Patricia Barron

Gladys Harrison: Captain of Big Mama’s Kitchen

September 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It takes a family to fill Big Mama’s shoes. Daughter No. 4, Gladys Harrison (general manager of Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering), knows this all too well. She even keeps a pair of her mother’s footwear close to remind her.

“I had planned to take a pair of my mother’s size 12 shoes to her funeral,” Harrison says. “I wanted to give a big speech about how big her shoes were figuratively, literally, and that it would be impossible for one person to fill them. Unfortunately, none of that happened.” 

That opportunity may have passed, but Harrison continues to live by the sentiment. Providing delicious, quality soul-food to hungry customers had always been her mother’s dream, and Harrison has been involved since the beginning.

“As children, my sisters and I helped my mother sell dinners out of the family home on weekends, until my father told us to get that mess out of his house,” Harrison recalls. 

After opening in 2007, Big Mama’s Kitchen received a huge boost when they were featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives less than a year later. While Harrison’s initial duties included creating fliers, setting up the website, and snagging their unique phone number (402-455-MAMA), her responsibilities grew at a fast pace until she found herself at a crossroads.

“For two years I worked 24/7, heading directly to the restaurant in the morning after working night shifts at Qwest Communications,” Harrison says. “My children were growing up without me, and I could feel the restaurant moving toward that next level. I wanted to be there 100 percent, so I said a prayer and asked God to give me a sign so I could quit my job and give my full time to Big Mama.”

She would eventually get that sign and leave Qwest Communications after a voluntary separation. Assuming the role of general manager gave Harrison a chance to showcase her abilities and spend lots of time with her mother. Their fun relationship was captured on a television pilot they shot for the Food Network back in 2013.

“They liked us because my mother and I were always arguing,” Harrison says with a smile. “She would say that I became general manager because I can’t cook, but don’t believe everything she says. I have always dreamed of being in charge! I was even elected as the state president of the Future Business Leaders of America at Marian High School.”

Harrison credits her giving nature, strong customer service background, and duties as an instructor and facilitator for quality improvement at Qwest Communications for her success.

 “I can’t tell this story without shouting out Tim Clark and Marilyn Simms,” Harrison adds. “They gave me an opportunity years ago to manage the volunteer committee for their annual jazz and blues concert at The Durham Museum. Doing that for three to four years gave me the experience I needed to manage.”

Anticipation was palpable in the air at Big Mama’s over the summer, with the team ready to move into their new location in the Accelerator Building at 30th and Parker streets. While the neighborhood may change, the inner-working of Big Mama’s Kitchen will remain a family affair, with Harrison delegating duties amongst her relatives.

Sister No. 3, Delena, makes the jams and jellies that are sold at the restaurant and local farmers markets, while sister No. 1, Donna, comes in on the weekends to talk to customers like their mother used to. Debbie is daughter No. 2 and their silent cheerleader, but Harrison’s most important asset is her oldest niece and Big Mama’s understudy, Diondria.

“Diondria is the new ‘queen of the kitchen,’” Harrison says with a devilish grin. “We call her D…well, her nickname is really something else, but don’t print that! I just love seeing her grow, and now she walks around looking and sounding just like her grandmother in that kitchen.”

While traditional favorites will remain on the menu, Harrison is excited to try out new ideas.

“We’ll be open seven days a week, and our oven-fried-chicken will still taste the same,” she says. “I wanted more dishes for our more selective eaters, and my motto is anything with soul has to have collard-greens involved. Our new Soul-Food Fried Rice was a hit at this year’s Taste of Omaha, and our Lazy May’s Vegan French Fries are new additions to the menu. I also think our classic cranberry-iced tea would be good with a shot of vodka.”

Some things, like Big Mama’s gluten/sugar-free sweet potato pies required some innovation. Unable to recreate the original recipe to their liking, Harrison and her niece made a special gluten/sugar-free pineapple upside-down cake for a diabetic customer. The impressed patron called later to thank Harrison’s niece, telling her that Big Mama must have come down from heaven and cooked it for her.

“We really try our best to make sure everyone’s experience here is a good one,” Harrison says. “My goal is to franchise her name, because almost everything I am is because of my mother. Can’t you see Big Mama’s Kitchens in stadiums and international airports?”

Note: The online version of this article has been modified to correct a typo in Harrison’s name that appeared in the print edition.


Visit bigmamaskitchen.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron

February 17, 2017 by
Photography by Ani Luxe Photography

This sponsored content appears in the Winter 2017 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/b2b_0217_125/56

After graduating from the School of Culinary Arts at Metro Community College in 1973, Patricia Barron worked in the corporate world. She retired from Qwest 30 years later.

Did she head for the beach? No. At age 65, she continued working, fulfilling her lifelong dream of opening her own restaurant.

“You’re never too old to pursue your dreams,” she says, “I’m going to work until I’m 100 years old.

In December 2007, she opened the restaurant she had dreamt about.  The menu is as deliciously rich and full of history as its owner who says:  “We prepare food the way my mother and grandmother did, made from scratch with a little soul and lots of love.”

And the owner keeps going, not letting age slow her down.

The restaurant’s nationally known cuisine, service and down home atmosphere keep customers coming back.

Big Mama’s is headed for a new location next year.  Combining her restaurant and sandwich shop in the 75 North Revitalization Project, a development of homes, apartments, and condos.  The menu at the new location will feature many of the foods she has become famous for along with a few new items which Big Mama is excited to introduce to her customers.

bigmamaskitchen.com

Reinventing the Classic

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Time travel back to childhood. Sink your teeth into two slices of white bread slathered with creamy peanut butter and purplish jam, the sandwich staple of sack lunches and after-school snacks.

Can you taste the love? Hungry for more? Many Omaha locals drive over to the Old Market Farmers Market on a Saturday morning for their fix. There’s often a line stretching around the black truck with an orange logo, where customers eagerly await gourmet twists on standard PB&J.

PBJ3PBJ—Peanut Butter Johnny’s—is the dream and brainchild of John Jelinek. You won’t find Skippy and processed strawberry jam here. Jelinek’s food truck rolls through town selling sandwiches made from many different types of bread, a variety of nut butters, and artisanal jams ranging from spicy jalapeño to exotic fig. He even puts bacon on his sandwiches.

Jelinek isn’t a chef or a well-known restauranteur in town. In fact, Peanut Butter Johnny’s is his first business. Jelinek previously worked as director of sales vendors for Time Warner. He dreamed of owning his own business, and he initially thought about opening a clothing store.

Then he considered opening a food truck, but he wasn’t sure if it would work for him; “There’s already a lot of pizza trucks and that sort of thing, and frankly, they do it better than I can,” Jelinek says.

Jelinek finally settled upon the idea of serving grown-up versions of childhood comfort food. He took the concept and (literally) rolled with it. Not being a chef, he wanted a professional to make sure his vision was as delicious as he imagined.

He contacted Beth Augustyn in the culinary arts department of Metropolitan Community College. Augustyn made a connection with graduate Jarrod Lane, a sous chef at Marks Bistro. The business owner and chef stuck together like…

Jelinek didn’t just connect with Lane. He also connected with chef Clayton Chapman of the Grey Plume, Patricia Barron of Big Mama’s, and chef Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon. Jelinek asked for help from these local culinary giants, and each helped create the specialty sandwiches on his menu.

“What’s great about John is he has a vision but he allows us to create,” says Chapman. “We went to a few tasting sessions to get that to where he wanted it. He’s incredibly creative and able to see something in its finished place much before it’s started.”

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Peanut Butter Johnny’s opened for business on the evening of Dec. 5, 2015, at a fundraiser for the Nebraska AIDS Project. Over the summer, the truck attended the free Memorial Park concert and fireworks, and the Fourth of July Parade in Ralston. Anywhere the people go, they go.

PBJ serves sandwiches upon sandwiches. And customers can’t get enough. At ConAgra in early July, Jelinek, Lane, and two other employees served 40 orders in little under 30 minutes. “People were telling us they’ve waited over an hour for other food trucks,” Lane says.

Jelinek’s multi-ingredient sandwiches require time and love. Aside from bacon, other dishes feature chicken, and many sandwiches come grilled.

“You can’t go wrong with PB&J,” claims customer Justin Swanson. “I want to support local business owners, plus this is way better than I can make.”

On a sweltering summer day, Swanson saw the truck parked near 90th and Dodge streets. He swung by to support the business (and his bar friend). Swanson is a bartender at The House of Loom, where Jelinek often chooses to spend his free time.

It’s these type of friendships that keep customers coming to PBJ. Chapman says Jelinek’s personality also draws return customers.

“It’s his enthusiasm, it’s his drive, it’s his passion for what he’s doing,” Chapman says. “You’re just naturally drawn to it.”

“So much of business is relationships,” Jelinek says. “So much of repeat business is relationships. Serving them good food and being nice to them so they say, ‘You know, let’s go back.’”

He wants the food truck community to keep making relationships, too, especially in the wake of new regulations.

“It’s important that we have rules that everyone can live by,” Jelinek says. “Food trucks want to find a way to get along well and be something unique.” 

Visit pbjohnnys.com for more information. Encounter

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