The Empress of Uptown

By / Photography By Aaron Snow | April 27, 2018
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Heather Paul

In this bright new era of shopping and eating local, memories of Oklahoma City’s past feel hazy. Especially in Uptown, it’s almost become more difficult to dine at a national chain than to find a unique and locally owned business. The area’s revitalization has been led by passionate and driven individuals determined to carve out a new identity for our city, one that is unique to our culture, instead of allowing banal corporations to homogenize the landscape.

One of the restaurateurs who is inarguably most responsible for this change in our scene is Heather Paul. When she and her husband, Keith, opened Cheever’s on 23rd street, their ambitions weren’t grand. They simply wanted a comfortable place for people in the neighborhood to gather and eat good food.

Looking back at the success of the Pauls’ A Good Egg Dining Group, it’s hard to imagine that they traveled such a route to forming a restaurant group and transforming the city’s dining expectations. Currently boasting a dozen locations from eight different concepts, the Pauls have garnered much respect from the community because of their focus on hospitality and high-quality food.

Those core ideals began in 2000 with Cheever’s, but the dining climate was much different. Back then, there were hardly any local restaurants south of Nichols Hills, especially ones with the standards that Heather desired.

“Everything was against us,” Heather remembers. “We were in a terrible location, we did not have enough money to do what we were doing, which is where a lot of young business owners fall short, the capital they need to keep things running.”

The demand for what the Pauls were offering didn’t seem to quite be there yet, especially where they were located. 23rd Street has rapidly transformed into a district flush with fleshed-out bar and restaurant concepts, but when the Pauls were making their first move, the neighborhood had a quite different atmosphere.

The parking lot across from the recently renovated Tower Theater was a bank of payphones. “I felt like the last payphones in the world were right there,” Heather recollects. “There was all kinds of illicit activity happening just right across the street there.”

It was so rough that the previous cafe owner in that location had actually been firebombed, for seemingly no reason, a few years prior to the Pauls opening Cheever’s. Business was slow from the outset. “Sometimes, we would have four customers in a night, and one of them would be Keith sitting at the bar before he came to work.”

Despite the initial difficulties, enough of the community began to slowly latch on and turn the restaurant into a neighborhood favorite. “I do show appreciation as much as I can for Heritage Hills because I think they were so starved to have somewhere to go eat that was in their part of town,” Heather acknowledges, “they did everything they could to support us and bring other people.”

Two years later, a building went on sale, the one that housed a restaurant longtime OKC urbanites will remember as Leslie’s Painted Desert. Leslie’s had been a neighborhood staple, and the loss felt personal for Heather, both sentimentally since her first job had been working there as well as significantly since her mother had been part-owner. Despite her long-held love for the space, Heather recognizes in retrospect that opening another restaurant there involved tremendous risk. “Honestly, we had no business opening Iron Star, because we did not have a restaurant that was successful,” she recalls. Now into sixteen years of operation, the refined barbeque concept became the launching ground for A Good Egg Dining Group to grow into the titan of local food industry that it is now known as.

Flash forward to 2018 and A Good Egg Dining Group has a slew of popular concepts across Oklahoma City. Serving everything from oysters to onion burgers, at least one restaurant in their group is sure to please any palate. Heather has overcome plenty of challenges to get where she’s at in the industry, so she’s loaded with advice to give and war stories to swap. “I wasn’t in any way prepared—even though I knew it was going to take hard work—how much hard work and sacrifice it was going to take to get through,” she stresses.

Heather tends to be a Type A personality, which can be both a boon and a challenge when trying to juggle several dining concepts. These days, her role in the company takes advantage of her art degree, and she finds herself fully immersed in the visual side of the restaurants. Whether it is designing the interiors, laying out menus, or even creating business cards, her aesthetic touches every element of A Good Egg Dining Group. As anyone who has dined amongst the immaculate marble of The Drake can attest, that obsessiveness to detail pays off.

Conversely, she can sometimes find it challenging to work with others, especially when she has a pure vision for what she wants done. Communicating that vision is occasionally difficult.

“I think that’s an extra layer of work you have to do as a woman, you have to find your voice that may not be there,” Heather explains. “You do want to be nurturing, but you don’t want to be a pushover, if you come out too strong, you’re considered a bitch. It’s hard, it’s really hard to find your voice.”

Heather prides her group on hiring and promoting several women to powerful positions in the company, such as general managers and chef de cuisines. She offers parting advice for women looking to advance: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t be done. You have to not listen to anyone who’s gonna tell you you’re going to fail. You have to be singularly focused on what you want to get done.”

Article from Edible OKC at http://edibleoklahomacity.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/empress-uptown
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