When guests enter Edmond’s Signature Grill restaurant, owner Jessica Falkner’s warm welcome is like one of a treasured friend. Owning the restaurant for the past 11 years has allowed couple Clay and Jessica Falkner to take charge of their family’s future and make lasting connections with community members.
“It’s truly the friendships we have built that mean the most,” said Falkner. “I’ve seen kids graduate high school, go off to college, get married and start their own families. I get to be in the center of that because people celebrate milestones at the restaurant. It’s been really rewarding.”
Perhaps what most endears friends and strangers alike to Falkner are her authenticity and kindness. The mom of two is both affirming and willing to be vulnerable about everyday struggles, giving those around her the freedom to be their true selves, too.
Preparing for the future
Clay, born and raised in Bethany, and Jessica, an Oklahoma transplant, met while working in Northpark Mall. Jessica moved here from Malaysia just after turning 18 to pursue a piano performance degree at Oklahoma City University, her family’s first choice over Australia’s Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
The culture shock was extreme, but Falkner quickly made friends and enjoyed college life in her adopted hometown to the fullest.
“International students have no other family around so friends truly become like family,” said Falkner, still close with many of her college friends.
Falkner earned a bachelor’s degree in music, and, unbeknownst to her parents, a second degree in business administration.
“I didn’t think I’d be the next concert pianist at Carnegie Hall, so I wanted to find something I could do with my life,” said Falkner. “My parents were pretty shocked at graduation!”
Falkner comes by her self-reliance and determination naturally. After years of supporting her dad in his career as a minister, her mom earned a master’s of divinity from the University of California, Berkeley at age 50. Falkner’s younger sister and brother attended college in Oklahoma, her sister returning to Malaysia and her brother making his home in Edmond.
Solidifying a dream
Though Falkner enjoys playing the piano, especially to review what daughter, Mia, 12, is learning in her lessons, it was her foresight in earning her business degree that’s been the foundation of her professional life. After college Falkner managed Taste of China restaurants before seeking a corporate career. In 2008, the Falkners considered their professional futures and made a huge leap, purchasing the space that would become Signature Grill.
“We were young and in a pretty bad economic recession,” recalls Falkner. “It was not the best time to be opening a restaurant, but after the price got down to what we could afford we decided to jump on it.”
Clay, with years of experience in the industry, including as executive chef of Deep Fork Grill, had a vision for the intimate space, which he and Jessica painted and decorated themselves.
“Clay wanted to cook his own dishes and had a true vision for how he wanted his food to be, where you pair your own sides with your entree and get to customize your menu,” said Falkner.
With concern about Falkner’s company restructuring, the duo created a job for her at the restaurant, handling the business operations.
Drawing on her business acumen and restaurant experience, Falkner refined an environment that feels like home, both to patrons and employees.
“With my servers, I don’t have a training manual or huge test to know everything on the menu,” said Falkner. “Everyone I hire has something to bring to the table, and if we just amplify their strengths and good qualities, it puts them at ease and gives them the freedom to read their tables and express themselves.”
The venture into self-employment expanded again two years ago to include opening a second restaurant, Bistro Twenty Two, with friend and chef Ryan Murphy.
Mixing marriage and business
When it comes to working with her husband, Falkner says there are pros and cons.
“Owning a business sounds so wonderful in your head, but we almost didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Falkner. “Being business partners, a couple and parents together is taking on a lot.”
Falkner focuses on the positive that she and Clay set business priorities together. For example, Signature Grill was open six days a week upon inception. After nearly two years, the Falkners decided they needed more time off to recharge and spend with family.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make those calls if we were working for someone else,” said Falkner, nor would the couple have had the freedom to open their second restaurant.
It can be nearly impossible to compartmentalize work and home life, with most conversations including talk about the restaurant. Since evenings and weekends are spent at work, the couple makes time for Monday lunch dates with minimal discussion about work.
Falkner describes she and Clay’s personalities and talents as complements of each other.
“I am a terrible cook,” laughs Falkner, “but I can run a great front-of-house and really connect with people. Clay cooks for them really well; he connects with people through his food.”
Falkner handles administrative and operations tasks in the mornings after dropping her kids at school, picks Mia and Lincoln up after school and returns to the restaurant five evenings a week to greet guests and oversee service. With a schedule that differs from many other working moms, she’s often plagued by mom guilt.
“I think that is the biggest thing I live with every day, and I know it’s inevitable, but sometimes I still let it get to me,” said Falkner.
When Falkner can’t attend her kids’ events or chauffeur them to activities, she is thankful for a supportive village of friends and family who step in to help.
Falkner has become adept at carving time out for herself, friends and family when and how she can, focusing less on blocking hours of time or making elaborate plans and more on making the time spent meaningful.
Sundays are reserved for family, attending church together, going out to lunch and spending time outdoors when possible.
“Meals together are few and far between in our household because we are gone during dinner,” said Falkner. “That time we get on Sundays to sit around a table is precious.”
To recharge, Falkner makes time to hit the gym, play the piano and catch up with girlfriends.
The kindness guests experience upon entering Signature Grill is not happenstance, it’s Falkner’s top priority in life and parenting.
“Kindness is the foundation of what my parents taught me, so I try to carry that on,” said Falkner. “Even as babies we would tell [our kids] as they were sleeping that the most important thing to us is that they are kind.”
The affirmation Falkner strives to put out into the world has returned to her on countless occasions for more than a decade as a business owner.
“We are part of this community that has really supported and encouraged us through 11 years,” said Falkner. “Everything has been worth it.”