Just as her four sisters have done, Tyreiha Walker grew up working in her Granny’s well-known Wanda J’s restaurants in north Tulsa.
She started at cash register at age 7, progressed to doing dishes then became a waitress by 14.
Walker now spends time at the family’s newest location, Wanda J’s Next Generation, on Greenwood Avenue across from ONEOK Field.
She juggles work at the restaurant – which is within walking distance of campus – while attending OSU-Tulsa and raising a 4-year-old son.
Walker and her sisters opened the restaurant in their Granny’s honor and run it themselves.
“I do everything here. I jump in wherever I’m needed,” she says.
Walker discovered just how deep her attachment to her family and to Tulsa is when she went off to college in the Oklahoma City area.
“I missed my family so much. I’ve spent my whole life around my sisters and then I didn’t spend any time with them at all,” she says. “While I was there, I spent most of my time crying.”
After one semester, Walker decided to come back home to Tulsa. When she found out she was pregnant with her son, it only gave her more reason to return.
Once home, Walker took classes at Tulsa Community College with an eye toward becoming a speech pathologist. When it came time to transfer and she realized OSU-Tulsa offers communication sciences and disorders courses, it sealed the deal.
“I thought, ‘there’s no way that this school right here in my hometown has the courses I need,’” Walker says. “But it does.”
Eventually, she realized that she would rather have a job working within the community. She changed her degree program to multi-disciplinary studies with a focus on sociology and expects to graduate in December.
“I don’t feel limited in life,” Walker says. “I see myself doing something within the community having to do with race, gender and class issues.”
Tulsa’s past and future
Firmly planted in Tulsa, Walker says she will never leave again.
She is part of a north Tulsa restaurant dynasty, the ultimate ‘all in the family’ generational business that began with great-grandma Evelyn whose namesake restaurant – known for great soul food – is located by the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.
Evelyn’s is owned by Walker’s grandmother, Wanda J., who has run her own north Tulsa restaurants featuring homestyle, comfort food since the 1970s.
“My sisters and I had to learn the restaurant business. There was no way around it,” Walker said.
Wanda J., who Walker and her sisters call ‘Granny,’ still cooks at a small kitchen for employees at the American Airlines Maintenance Base.
“She cooks food, washes dishes and we eventually got her to use a touchscreen billing system instead of her old manual cash register,” she says with a laugh.
Because of her family’s deep north Tulsa roots, Walker often reflects on the history of the city’s Greenwood Avenue, known in the early 1900s across the country as ‘Black Wall Street’ for its thriving African-American community. She wants to be part of the change for the better in the city of Tulsa, to promote diversity and acceptance of each other and those who visit.
“I feel like Tulsa has been growing in more ways than one,” Walker says. “We’re trying to become a city that attracts tourists of every nationality and one that is inclusive of all.”
OSU-Tulsa is another family affair. One of Walker’s sisters is an OSU-Tulsa student and so is her own fiancé.
“I think OSU-Tulsa is wonderful and the faculty is very experienced and helpful,” Walker says. “And it is right in our community, just a short walk away from Wanda J’s.”
She says she will always work at Wanda J’s, even after she gets a full-time job in community or social work.
“I meet so many people and learn so much from them at the restaurant,” Walker says. “But I also want a career helping people. My heart is with the community.”