Herman's put the sea in OKC

BY DAVE CATHEY
Published: December 6, 2010
Modified: December 6, 2010 at 9:18 am

Herman Baggett returned to his Texas home after serving in the Army during World War I with an appreciation for how large the world is. He also came back with a trade. So, he and his wife, Mary May, packed their belongings and migrated north to Oklahoma City in 1925. He'd worked as a cook in the Army and used his experience to catch on in kitchens around the city, including the Black Hotel.

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A decade later, he opened his first restaurant, which was a simple sandwich counter at NW 4 and Hudson. But having seen a bigger slice of the world, Herman wanted to bring some of what it had to offer to Oklahoma City.

Seafood was the answer. So, in 1939, he opened Herman's Sea Food Restaurant in the same space.

"Daddy was bringing in fresh seafood when that sort of thing was unheard of," said his daughter, Susie Gray. "It came packed in ice every day."

That included seafood such as pompano, swordfish, soft-shell crab and lobster.

Susie Gray's son, Ken Gray, who still makes and sells the Original Herman's Coleslaw, said he used to play in the lobster barrels after the crustaceans were removed.

"They were packed in seaweed," he said. "You'd dig out a layer of it, and the lobster was beneath. The barrels were just the right size for me to fit in."

After its safe was stolen twice and a couple of fires, the restaurant moved to NW 16 and Classen in the quirky space where, under an outlandish bright sign adorned with a swordfish, it became famous. The Baggetts sold the restaurant to the Val Gene Restaurant Group in 1969, although it continued under the Herman's name through the 1970s. It eventually became Triple's. The space still stands, occupied by a Mexican restaurant.

Susie Gray was an only child and as such was spoiled by her daddy. Whenever she showed up for lunch, it was on the house. As a student at Classen High School, which was right around the corner, her entourage of lunch mates grew over time. But even those who didn't tag along were apt to find a free lunch at Herman's.

"We used to have crackers and cocktail sauce on the tables, and water was free," she said. "Coca-Cola was only 15 cents."

But for dinner, the restaurant was more upscale.

"Nobody had a menu like Herman's," Susie Gray said. "People lined up out the door and into the market to get in."

She said the market was a common stop for housewives.

"Women didn't like to touch the raw fish so much, so Arnold (James) would fillet and clean the fish for them," she said. "Then he would bread it with our seasonings, wrap it up and tell them how to cook it once they got home."

Susie Gray said the success was in her parents' teamwork. Her father cooked and supervised the kitchen, and Mary May, better known as "Tiny," ran the dining room. "Mama was 4-foot-10," she said.

Herman Baggett died in 1969, less than a year after turning his life's work over to others. Tiny died in 1980.

In 1991, Susie and Ken Gray reopened Herman's on Northwest Expressway, using the secret family recipes and hiring long-timers including Kenneth Mulhausen, who managed the original Herman's for 14 years, former chefs James Wortham, L.E. Dubois and brothers Phelix and Leon Scott.

"Folks worked for Daddy their entire lives," Susie Gray said. "Multiple generations of fathers and sons."

The old sign had been in storage for years but was destroyed only days before Susie Gray located and inquired about it.

"It just made me sick. I would have given anything to have it. And it had sat around for all those years," she said.

Perhaps it was a portent of things to come. The Grays readily admit they aren't restaurant folks like their ancestors. They said the space was far too large. The new version lasted less than two years.

These days, Ken Gray still mixes the coleslaw for a selected clientele.

"I've tried having it mass-produced, but no one can seem to get it just right," he said.

Kyle's 1025, 1025 NW 70, carries the coleslaw as part of its Oklahoma Classics menu.

"I drive batches out to a couple places in Tulsa, too," he said. "There's some places that claim to make Herman's Coleslaw, but I'm the only one that has the true recipe."

Which is how his grandfather wanted it.

Contributing: The Oklahoman Archive


 


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