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Quake Delivers Knockout Punch to Okie Girl Eatery

February 02, 1994|DAVID COLKER

Promoting a restaurant in the remote Tejon Pass wasn't easy, but the "Okie Girl" went at it with aspirations higher than her hairdo.

Mary Lynn Chess, 54, who opened the Okie Girl barbecue restaurant and brewery in 1990 alongside Interstate 5 about 70 miles north of Los Angeles, could turn everything from a minor skirmish with a state agency to a local look-alike contest into a media event.

And when the Christo "Umbrellas" art exhibition landed in the nearby mountains in 1991, television crews from around the world lined up to interview the Oklahoma-born entrepreneur with the towering beehive hairdo who could discuss moonshine and the latest in computerized restaurant equipment with equal aplomb.

The one thing the tireless Chess could not stand was to be ignored. That is what has happened since the earthquake, and it has proved fatal for her Okie Girl restaurant in Lebec, on the Los Angeles-Kern County border.

Chess and her crew served their last "pasture and pond" special (barbecued beef ribs and catfish) and homemade blackberry cobbler a week ago Sunday. With freeway traffic disrupted by quake damage in the northeastern San Fernando Valley, business plunged to about three customers an hour, Chess said, and she had no cash reserves to weather the crisis.

Chess had 13 full-time employees, including a brew master who turned out "River Bottom Stout" and other beers amid the knotty pine and Old West-decor of the restaurant.

Chess may be best known for her quarrel with Caltrans, which refused to allow her to advertise on state-controlled signs beside the highway, saying the restaurant's name insulted Oklahomans.

"If anybody has a right to call themselves an Okie, I do," protested Chess, a native daughter of the Sooner State. "I'm proud of it and I always have been."

She clinched her argument when the Oklahoma governor wrote to Caltrans in her defense, officially declaring that, whatever Californians might think, Oklahomans wear the name "Okie" as a badge of honor, symbolizing their "strong work ethic, character and resiliency."

Caltrans not only backed down on the sign, a court later ordered the agency to pay her $32,000 in punitive damages.

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