Down in Waurika, Jeri Nell Mays has been in the middle of a family operation that produces homemade catfish for most of her life.
Bill's Fish House was opened by her grandparents in the early 1960s. Nearly 20 years later, Jeri Nell and her brother took over, expanding the operation to Lone Grove.
The many patrons who've supported Bill's probably know Jeri Nell and her husband, Jim, had a baby a little over three decades ago, not long after the full responsibility of running Bill's transferred to Jeri Nell's shoulders. What they might not know is while she was preparing for service, her son Jimmy was never far away.
“She likes to tell the story about how she used to store me in a dish basin under the prep table when I was a baby.”
So, it's no surprise that when little Jimmy, whom she calls “Kid” and his friends call “J,” grew up to be a restaurateur himself.
Cafe 7, 14101 N May Ave., opened at the start of Oklahoma City's fast-casual revolution — tucked between pioneering Saturn Grill and game-changing Big Truck Tacos in the timeline.
Pizza, pasta, sandwiches and salads for seven bucks in seven minutes is the promise — though one can certainly spend more than that if they want. And sometimes, multiple pizza orders can upset the seven-minute applecart. But none of it would likely have happened had J. Mays not grown up in his mother's restaurant.
“I start washing dishes when I was about 5,” Mays said. “As I got older, I learned to work in the kitchen and in the front of the house. I didn't go out as much as my friends, but don't get me wrong — I had a great time growing up and wouldn't change a thing.”
About five decades ago, Bill and Nell Schram saw their dream of opening a friendly place where friends gather come alive.
Featuring catfish with all the trimmings, it first opened in Terral. It took two locations before Bill's established its stronghold on a hilltop on State Highway 79, just west of Waurika, in 1962.
Since then, the menu has expanded to include shrimp, frog legs, scallops, oysters and calf fries. But the big ticket is hand-sliced catfish fillets in cornmeal batter, fried in specially blended oil.
The tartar sauce, coleslaw and hush puppies are from a secret family recipe that is carried forward today.
“Whenever I have a sandwich with coleslaw on special, that coleslaw is the recipe from Bill's Fish House,” J Mays said.
Bill Schram died in 1964, but his dream lived on through as his wife, Nell, took the mantle, carrying it through to her retirement in 1978.
That's when Jeri Nell and her brother, Steven Goza, took the reins. It made sense as each had a working relationship with the Fish House since the age of 10.
In April 2001, they opened a Lone Grove location.
Last year, cancer claimed Steven, whose wife, Anita, and daughters Samantha, Shannon and Savannah have worked at Bill's through the years. It's no surprise Jeri Nell didn't quit the business when her brother got sick because J says if there's one thing he got from his mother, it's determination.
“Anyone who know me, knows I don't quit at anything,” J said. “That's directly from my mother. She's my hero.”
Along the way, J contracted the restaurant bug, but it wasn't solely his association with Bill's.
“When I was earning my cooking badge in the Scouts, it really piqued my interest,” J said. “And with all that I'd learned growing up watching my Mom, it was an easy choice.”
J announced to his parents that he'd like to go into the restaurant business but was reminded in no uncertain terms that college was his first stop after high school.
So off to Stillwater he moved to attend Oklahoma State University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He obviously made an impression on his professors as one sought him out as a partner as he looked at starting a new concept in Oklahoma City.
J Mays worked at a number of places after school, gaining valuable experience in kitchens like the one at Gaillardia before joining former college instructor Paul Sorrentino and fellow OSU alum Chris Kana to bring the Cafe 7 concept to fruition.
The place has been an unmitigated success.
“We've been blessed,” Mays said.
Multicolored order slips are arranged at the entry on a tabletop with pencils. Guests can choose from signature items or build their own pizza, pasta, salad or sandwich. Cafe 7 also serves soup and dessert.
When Jeri Nell Mays comes to the big city, she always orders the Signature Chicken Salad.
You'll also find Pasta Primavera on the menu in her honor. J Mays remembers her disappointment when Olive Garden took it off the menu, so it was one of the first things he suggested for the menu.
To honor all mothers, Cafe 7 will treat them to chocolate-covered strawberries this Mother's Day — just like they've been doing at Bill's Fish House for many years.