NE OKC development attracts hip-hop artist-backed restaurant

Published Friday, March 2, 2018
by Brian Brus

Eastside Redevelopment on NE 23rd Street will be successful not merely because it’s being launched by a novel new restaurant concept backed by a popular hip-hop artist, but also for its ownership structure, Pivot Project partner Jonathon Dodson said.

When Jabee Williams Jr. signed on a contract to open East Side Poke Project a few blocks west of Martin Luther King Avenue, he also bought a share of the property.

“In neighborhoods that are gentrified, property values typically start low until you get artists and retailers to go in and create value,” Dodson said. “That increases value, and then you get a wave of developers like myself who go in to buy the properties for a little more to charge tenants a little more. Then leases on the first tenants come up for renewal and they’re driven out.

“We realized that if we gave our tenants ownership in the real estate, that would give them upside and reason to see it through,” he said. “We want to go side by side with the tenants.”

Williams, who started rapping in the area when he was 7 years old, said he wanted to pay something back after winning attention for his musical talents with a regional Emmy award. His latest collection released through Grand Union Media, Black Future, is titled after a poem written by an Oklahoma City teacher.

Williams sought out West Coast restaurateur and entrepreneur Andy Nguyen for ideas on how best to highlight northeast Oklahoma City’s diverse culture and untapped vitality. Nguyen co-founded restaurants such as Milk Box Boba, Pig Pen Delicacy, Wingman Kitchen and Afters Ice Cream. Nguyen’s cuisine gained meme-level popularity because of a picture of a sushi donut.

Williams and Nguyen decided the East Side Poke Project needed poke bowls as well as sushi burritos and Spam fries. Poke, pronounced pokay, is a fish salad.

“To me, Oklahoma City is cool,” Williams said. “There are plenty of opportunities throughout the city, and people asked why I wanted to choose the east side. But I believe people need access to different restaurants from different cultures, mixing with a wide range of people. That’s important.”

Williams plans to hang out at the restaurant as much as possible. Eran Harrill, president of the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce, said he expects the business and Williams’ presence will attract other entrepreneurs with just as much enthusiasm.

“I think that area is ready to be an anchor for a redevelopment explosion,” Harrill said. “It’s been hard to get developers to do anything and retail and restaurants to come there. This really starts to chip away at that attitude and show the potential for redeveloping northeast Oklahoma City.”

Finding a bank for financing has been difficult. After several approaches, Dodson finally found a friend in First Security Bank & Trust Co. to purchase the two buildings at NE 23rd Street and N. Rhode Island Avenue. The Oklahoma City Council also helped last year in approving a tax increment finance district, or TIF, to provide $1.3 million for infrastructure improvements. A total of nearly $10 million is being invested in the redevelopment.

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