At an age when people dream of retiring, a wife and mother of five daughters poured her time and energy into her first restaurant. Years of preparing home-cooked meals for her family, friends and neighbors inspired Patricia Barron’s vision for Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering in Nebraska. “My mom, she loves to feed people,” says Gladys Harrison, Barron’s fourth daughter. “She learned how to cook biscuits from her grandmother Lillie on a wood burning stove when she was six-years-old. That same recipe that her grandmother showed her is the same recipe that we use today.”
Most of the food served at the restaurant “Big Mama” opened in 2007 comes from dishes her grandmother and mother Lena taught her to make while she was growing up in the city of Omaha. Barron put a creative spin on many of the more than 1,000 recipes in her collection. “As long as I can remember, the kitchen was where everything happened in our house,” says Harrison. “My mother was always in there cooking, even though she had a full-time career in corporate America.”
Harrison is the general manager at the restaurant her mother founded at the age of 65. Big Mama Barron used her experiences operating a catering company at home to expand the business now run by three generations of her family. Barron’s oldest granddaughter, Diondra Harrison, is the head cook at the restaurant. “She knows all the recipes. She knows all the secrets. It’s amazing how she stepped up and knows exactly how to do things,” says Harrison
All of Barron’s daughters and most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren have worked at the restaurant, sharing in the responsibilities of keeping the business going. Big Mama taught her daughter, Delena Givens-Brown, how to make all the jellies, jams and relishes sold at the restaurant and local farmers’ markets. Another daughter, Debbie Craddock, used to run Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop. Barron’s oldest, Donna Harrison, helped out as a waitress before retiring from her full-time job as a registered nurse. Granddaughter Briannah lends a hand managing the dining room for her mother Gladys, and two of Big Mama’s grandsons step in when needed. “My mom has a saying, and it’s mine too. If we have the opportunity to provide someone with a means of making money, why not start with your own family.”
As the boss, Harrison recognizes the challenges that come with managing the restaurant with her mother no longer taking part in day-to-day operations. Barron taught her children to be independent and unafraid to express their views but being in charge requires tact. “Working with your family can put you in positions where feelings can get hurt. We can get on each other’s nerves,” says Harrison. However, the family members do have fun working together at Big Mama’s Kitchen and also try to balance business needs and family life.
The demands on Harrison and her staff increased with the closing of the sandwich shop in preparation for a significant investment in the restaurant’s future. The main dining room is moving from North 45th Street to North 30th Street in the Highlander neighborhood’s Seventy-Five North Development. “When we move, the new place is going to be a little more upscale. We’ll still have a lot of natural light. We’ll also have outside seating, but the food is going to be the same,” Harrison explains.
That means the oven-fried chicken made with the no salt seasoning Barron’s great-grandmother formulated will be on the menu, along with the Sweet Potato Pie Ice Cream and Afro Burger specialties that attracted Food Network’s attention. “The inspiration to create the Afro Burger came when she was on a mission trip to Africa in 1992 or 1993. She ate this goat meat that was really, really spicy. She really enjoyed that meal and decided to Americanize it when she got home,” says Harrison.
Several television shows have featured Big Mama’s Kitchen, including “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” The new location will also offer some new menu items and expanded hours of service.
Harrison knows relocating will fulfill another aspect of the dream her mother always had for the restaurant. Barron always wanted it to be part of the North Omaha community and its rich history of culture, business and art. Many of the businesses moved out after the riots of the 1960s. “One of Big Mama’s dreams was to see the revitalization of this historic part of Omaha back into a great place to live, shop and raise a family.”
The new location in the Highlander Accelerator Building will put Big Mama’s Kitchen in the heart of a revitalization project of mixed-income homes, retail businesses and restaurants. Harrison sees the move as an opportunity to bolster the foundation of a family legacy. “I would hope when I’m gone that the third generation, my niece and my daughter, will carry on the restaurant.”
Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering is currently located at 3223 North 45th Street, Turning Point Campus, Building A and will relocate to 2112 North 30th Street by this summer. Go to https://www.bigmamaskitchen.com to keep up with relocation progress and to also place an order for the restaurant’s no salt seasoning, cornbread mix and jellies, jams and relishes. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.