Sometime in mid-February, Tulsans are going to get their first taste of Empire Slice House, the Oklahoma City-based pizza concept created by Jenks High School alum Rachel Cope. Her umbrella company, 84 Hospitality, has leased the space formerly occupied by Yeti at 417 N. Main Street, and she said a late-winter opening is the most likely scenario.
“We’ve had some ‘old building’ problems, but we’re hopeful for the week of Feb. 10 or the following week,” Cope said. “I’m excited to finally get into Tulsa. My mother and brother still live there, and I never really got to experience it as an adult.”
Cope graduated from Jenks HS in 2003, and left for Pittsburgh State on a softball scholarship. The standout athlete, a natural short stop who refused to enjoy basketball because of “all the running,” made her way to Oklahoma City University, where she would help the team secure a national championship and herself a Golden Glove. She stayed in Oklahoma City after graduation, working in the food service industry until she opened Empire Slice House in the Plaza District in 2013.
The pizza-by-the-slice joint would be the first of what are now six concepts, with a seventh—Burger Punk—planned for OKC in 2020. Empire is the brand that built her reputation, though, and it has developed a fan base all over the state. In fact, the Tulsa deal came about because of a Facebook message from a fan.
“I’ve been thinking about coming back home with the businesses for years, and I’ve been watching Tulsa grow so much and do so well, and that made me want to be here even more,” she said. “Out of nowhere, I got a message on Facebook telling me to look into the old Yeti location.”
Cope, true to her athletic nature, is a “we can do this” type thinker, who develops plans and attracts talented people because she provides opportunity for growth, rewards hard work, encourages creative thinking and fosters an environment of equality and equal opportunity for everyone. That’s not PR talk; it’s really who she is. When she heard about sexual harassment issues at other restaurants in OKC, she put out the word that any female employee who didn’t feel safe at those concepts had a job waiting at an 84 Hospitality restaurant. She didn’t check to see if there were openings; she just told the team they’d make it work.
Cope does make things work. Her rapid growth has led to speaking opportunities, national press attention and an abundance of OKC’s most talented hospitality professionals flocking to her brand. Two of those, Rachel Ferren and Keifer Truett, will be part of the opening team at Empire Tulsa. Ferren is an area manager for Cope, and Truett is a newly hired manager. Most of the other 60+ employees on the opening day staff will come from the Tulsa metro.
Easy E Slice Shop, the to-go part of Empire OKC, opened in 2017, but Cope does not foresee the need for that in Tulsa initially. “We had the space at the new location to contain all to-go operations inside the building,” she said. “It will be a distinct part of the operation, but it’ll be under one roof for now.”
The Empire model is very straightforward, and the menu—a duplicate of the OKC menu—is simple: pizza by the slice, whole pies, four appetizers and three salads. A lunch special is a daily slice with salad and drink, and the daily slices, of which there are six, always include a cheese and vegetarian option. Slices are $3.75, and that price point is perfect to attract a young and hungry following, especially when you factor in that a slice is about a quarter to a fifth of a 20-inch pie. Add a beer, and you have a meal.
Empire focuses on local beers, too, as part of a full-bar program. The only difference between the Tulsa and OKC locations will be the beer list, where Cope aims to highlight Tulsa’s burgeoning beer scene.
“I love what they’re doing at American Solera and Heirloom,” she said. “We’ll have a bunch of Tulsa taps, and we’ll bring some of our favorites from OKC. I’m always going to support Anthem, because they supported us from the beginning, and I want my Tulsa friends to try Stonecloud and other excellent OKC beers.”
The excitement in her voice is real. It’s another thing she has that people are drawn to: an irrepressible dynamic energy combined with that “we can do this” attitude. She’s excited about coming home, and she’s hopeful that Tulsa will welcome her back with the same enthusiasm.