Gladys Harrison: Captain of Big Mama’s Kitchen
Sep 17, 2018 11:34AM
By J.D. Avant
“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.