Steward of Success
Don Jones brings true Southwestern ingredients, dishes, flair and mentorship to his entire Cafe Olé menu that is influenced by generations-old recipes.
When you decide to buy a restaurant that has existed in Tulsa for close to 30 years, you know you’re taking on a challenge. But if someone is going to do it and do it right, that person is Don Jones, co-owner of Brookside’s stellar, award winning, authentic Southwestern restaurant, Cafe Olé.
Jones had a lengthy, successful career in the restaurant business before buying Cafe Olé from its previous owners. His first restaurant experience was a job at Pizza Hut in 1972. After that, he moved onto overseeing several Pizza Huts before becoming a partner in a new venture that people know as Pepper’s Grill; he sold it after helping build it to success. Eventually, he joined with a silent partner to buy Cafe Olé from its previous owners.
Those years of experience, together with a constant commitment to excellence, has helped Cafe Olé under Jones’ leadership to succeed at a level that many other restaurants would envy. “Our volume is at an all-time high,” he says. “We’re having a record year. It’s just nuts. We’re totally amazed and grateful.”
It’s no doubt Cafe Olé’s success is due in large part to its great food, great service and great atmosphere (it has one of the best patios in town). Though the restaurant’s name is Latino, the menu is not your typical Tex-Mex. Jones brings true Southwestern ingredients, dishes and flair to his entire menu. The food is influenced by generations-old recipes, and draws on inspiration from Native American, Southwestern and Mexican cooking.
Diners can’t go wrong whether they opt for the delectable fish tacos, the rich tortilla soup, the garlicky Shrimp Caribe, perfect pork rellenos or other equally wonderful dishes. And don’t forget their trademark queso, made with melted cream cheese, peppers, onions and spices, or their margaritas, which have won plenty of awards. In fact, in 2016 alone, Cafe Olé won the Taste of Brookside, as well as three Best in the World awards (Tulsa World) for best Mexican, best brunch and best margaritas. “There’s nothing like Cafe Olé in Tulsa,” says Jones. “It’s such a neat place. And so, we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to be stewards of the thing.”
That sense of stewardship, of servanthood, extends to every part of the restaurant.
“I tell my staff: we don’t assume anything. We work hard,” he says. “We have to be attacking those tables and doing our thing because our customers have lots of choices. Competition in this area is stout. I counted one time and there were 70 eating choices within a mile (of us). You know, it doesn’t get much tougher than that.”
Jones isn’t shy about bringing his A-game to every meal he serves, and he expects his staff to do the same. The result is that customers come back again and again, knowing they will get good service and delicious food every time.
“It’s an honor for us to serve people,” Jones says. “You’ve got to be servants. But you can’t assume that it’s anything but the best required of us to be the best.”
That outlook affects everything Jones does, including the family atmosphere he strives to maintain at the restaurant. “We always say it’s got to be faith, family, friends and work. And if any of those four is out of balance, they’re all out of balance,” Jones says. “And so how do you learn to balance your life in such a way that you make healthy decisions and get yourself ready for your true purpose in life with the gift that you’ve been given?”
Listening to Jones share stories of what life is like at Cafe Olé, it’s clear that as much as he cares about the quality of the customer experience there, he cares equally about mentoring his staff members. As an example, he tells the story of a staff member who he once had to fire years ago, but ended up rehiring after life threw an unexpected curve ball.
“A long time ago, we had a staff member that I had to let go,” Jones says. “He came to TU to play ball, handsome guy, gift of gab. He was talented. He went to work for us as a server. And he was an off-the-charts server, so we made him a manager. He was doing a great job. Then all of a sudden, I realized he had some problems.”
It turned out the young man was doing drugs. Jones tried to work with him through those issues, but eventually had to fire him. After a car wreck and hard recuperation, the young man wanted to come back to work for Jones. Other people might have said no, but not Jones, who agreed to hire the young man back if he proved he could physically handle the job.
That second chance not only helped the young man be motivated to push through his physical recovery, but he turned his life around in the kind of dramatic way you hope for when you help someone the way Jones did. The man now works at a well-known residential detox and rehab treatment center in Green Country.
Stories like this surround Jones, who clearly cares about helping people. And he extends that giving spirit to community causes too. Cafe Olé supports the Food for Kids Backpack Program of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, which helps feed school aged children who’s families are in need.
“We just believe education is critical to change in life, change in society,” says Jones. “These young children are going to school but they’re so hungry, there’s not an opportunity to learn. So when we were looking for places where we could pass on our some of our blessings here, they came to our forefront. So, the third Wednesday of each month, we give a portion of our receipts that night to the Backpack Program.”
If there’s a theme to Cafe Olé and to Jones, it may very well be impacting people’s lives — through good food, through mentoring, through charity. “I guess if you looked at my whole life, I’d say we’re here to make a difference,” says Jones. And it’s clear that he does just that.
3509 S. Peoria | Tulsa
Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Brunch: 9 a.m.-Noon
Sunday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Brunch: 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
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