Arriving at Le Jardin Eatery in Bixby, you’ll probably find the hostess in the midst of some impromptu dance moves. Leaving, you and others are likely to carry out a bag of baked desserts. It’s just that kind of place.
It’s also a haven for both its founder and employees, all of whom are familiar with the rocky sides of life, because the restaurant hires those who have recently left prison.
Angela Landrum-Ellis started the business about a year ago, but supporting those leaving incarceration has been a dearly held wish for decades.
“My background is in manufacturing, but I wanted to do something from past times with my family, and use that love of cooking as a means to provide stable employment for people facing the challenges of coming out of incarceration,” she says.
Precious, the first name of a former inmate, says her employment at Le Jardin helps her to provide for herself and her family and “has definitely made me feel better about myself. It has challenged me to believe in my skills and capabilities more.”
The eatery’s name, French for the garden, is reflected in an abundance of hydroponic towers, laden with fresh herbs and greens. Popular menu choices include Belgian waffles and a steak-and-egg concoction featuring filet mignon.
Landrum-Ellis, never incarcerated herself, describes humble, southwestern Oklahoma beginnings, an unplanned pregnancy in college and knowing what it is like to overcome obstacles.
“I had a lot of family support and education,” she says. “Later, as an adult working for the state of Oklahoma, I saw firsthand how difficult it could be to get work and take care of oneself after being in prison without the kind of help I had. I wanted to find a way to make a difference.”
Her passion for food shows in that “almost everything in our kitchen is homemade – our sauces, soups, salad dressings, the marinades, our pastries and desserts,” Landrum-Ellis says. “We source local ingredients, and we make everything fresh, nothing frozen and reheated.”
Her staff members, making new lives for themselves, have supplied suggestions now incorporated into the menu.
“Our lead cook didn’t like that I used dried, gluten-free chickpeas instead of croutons,” she says with a laugh. “He created a fantastic recipe and now we have homemade, delicious croutons. And another of our gals did some research on classic recipes and transformed our French toast into something just divine. We all have input, and enjoy doing what we do. We’re like a family here.”
Employees feel that sense of community.
“I’m thankful and blessed to be a part of [Angela’s] heartfelt mission – to reach out and help others,” Lisa Thompson says.
Summer Dawn agrees.
“The team effort of the staff can be very encouraging,” she says. “The more effort you put into it, the stronger the team pulls together, and that feeling is like no other.”
Apart from running her business, Landrum-Ellis founded the nonprofit Life Food as a model to demonstrate the importance of nourishing the soul with education, positive social interaction and the dignity of gainful employment.
About a dozen people are employed by Le Jardin with a waiting list for those who would like to join. Doors are also open to the public for regular Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.