Successful Jurni: An Interview of Restaurateur Jurni Rayne

Influenced by her southern roots and legacy of great cooks including, her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Jurni Rayne always dreamed of owning a restaurant. She started working as a restaurant server at the age of 18. The Dallas resident earned her bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Administration, with a focus on food prep and restaurant management. In 2014 she relocated to Los Angeles. Before working as a consultant, she worked for many chain restaurants, including Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, California Pizza Kitchen, and Cheesecake Factory. 

In our recent interview, Jurni shared how she came up with the Gritz N’ Wafflez concept, the hurdles encountered and how she overcame them, and what’s next on the horizon.

PrideIndex (PI): I’m ecstatic to have this conversation with you today. Please introduce yourself.

Jurni Rayne (JR): I’m excited to be here. My name is Jurni Rayne, I’m a singer-songwriter from Dallas, Texas, currently living in Los Angeles. I’m the owner of Gritz N’ Wafflez Brunch Restaurant.

PI: I saw you years ago performing at Atlanta Black Gay Pride. 

JR: Yeah, it’s been a while. So, I’m glad to get reconnected.

PI: How did you go from being a singer-songwriter to a restaurateur?

JR: You know, it’s funny; it’s actually the opposite. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 18 years old. I was a Restaurant Manager at Pappadeaux for five years. My undergraduate degree was in Hospitality Administration. When I managed at Pappadeaux, my servers would ask me if I could sing happy birthday to our customers for $2. I’d said make it $5, and what’s the person’s name? One of the customers said I should pursue music, which I always liked; I wrote songs as a kid. I decided to switch from managing restaurants to pursuing music. So, it’s like coming full circle back to the restaurant industry.

PI: How did you come up with Gritz N’ Wafflez?

JR: It was birthed from a different concept. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue music as a singer-songwriter, I went to California State University at Northridge, where I got my master’s. The whole time I was here, I managed California Pizza Kitchen in Hollywood and The Cheesecake Factory at The Grove. Then I started doing some consulting. I was thinking, I want to open my own restaurant. The original concept was called “Evette Bayou.” My middle name is Evette, and “Eve’s Bayou is one of my first favorite movies. My restaurant was going to be a Southern and Creole concept. I was supposed to open in March 2020. On March 12, 2020, I got a draft lease agreement from a location, and I told them to give me a week to look it over. On March 16, 2020, the world shut down. It’s crazy! I had the COVID-19 pandemic to try to figure out what I wanted to do. I thought I might take a portion of the brunch menu I had for “Evette Bayou.” I thought, let’s focus on brunch. I ended up doing Gritz N’ Wafflez because shrimp and grits and chicken and waffles were more popular dishes.

PI: Why did you choose the LA market versus Dallas to establish a restaurant?

JR: That’s an excellent question! I was in LA when I decided to open a restaurant when COVID hit, and everything had shut down. The states of Texas, Georgia, and Florida were still open, so I thought I could open in Dallas. I went back home and started getting financing and working on opening the restaurant in Dallas, but things kept falling through. So, I found a spot in a ghost kitchen, like a virtual kitchen, in Los Angeles and opened in February 2022. It’s a 200-square-foot kitchen, and I’m only doing takeout and delivery. I am actively looking for a dine in location with the plan to open on February 3, 2023.

PI: All right, I frickin’ love it! Do you have any employees?

JR: Originally, it was just me for the first six months. I had to be absolutely insane to try to do this alone because it’s been crazy. I was a dishwasher, prep cook, and line cook; I was everything. I closed down at the end of the day doing everything by myself. I arrived at 6:00 a.m. and left at 7:00 p.m. while still working my 9-to-5 job as a property manager, Monday through Friday. I hired my first cook in August, then a second cook and a dishwasher. Two weeks ago, I fired my first cook, so it’s me, my second cook, and a dishwasher.

PI: What has been the biggest barrier to entry or hurdles you had to overcome?

JR: Well, money, right? It’s so expensive to open a restaurant any time of the year. It’s super risky. I cashed out my 401 K and maxed out all my credit cards because you can’t get any loans. Nobody wants to give startup money. And lenders don’t want to give money to somebody doing something as risky as a restaurant because most aren’t successful. [Statistically] new restaurants closed down within the first five years, so getting funding took a lot of work.

PI: Do you offer catering? 

JR: I do offer catering. You can select anything off the menu, and we’ll create a catering package for your needs. My very first catering gig was in May 2022. A woman customer that had my food said, “I love it. I want you to cater my graduation for 80 people.” [Laughs] I thought to myself as I listened to her, what is happening now. [Laughs] It’s going great. I’ve done some catering for the LA Clippers, the Rams, Netflix, and an architectural design firm called Gensler. I’ve been able to get my name out there, mostly because of Black History Month and Pride Month. It does pay to be queer, black, and female in this industry.

PI: Do you ever see yourself expanding into menu offerings beyond brunch?

JR: I do, and I’ve added a few things to the menu. When I first started. It was basic. It was waffles and grits. You can pick a protein such as shrimp, fried catfish, or wings and grits. Customers complained they don’t eat meat on the bone, so I added chicken tenders and French fries. Someone told me I had to offer something other than fries, so I added macaroni and cheese and collard greens. I also have Po’boys, so I see myself expanding into a full breakfast/brunch/lunch menu. I don’t see myself going to dinner just because I want to work less. [Laughs] It’s tough to find a good breakfast restaurant here, and you can’t get shrimp and grits on Tuesdays or Thursdays, so we do breakfast and brunch daily. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I want to eat chicken, waffles, bacon, and eggs anytime between noon or 3:00 p.m. or 9:00 a.m.

PI: Who are some of your influences in the culinary world?

JR: That’s an interesting question because I don’t consider myself a chef, right? I don’t think of myself as someone who goes after Michelin stars. I gravitate more toward the front of the house and the whole service piece. My food is super simple. I don’t try to be a Chef Gordon Ramsay or anyone like that. My biggest influences are my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, so my seasoning line is named after great-grandmother Zula Murphy. It’s called Mama Zula’s Creole Seasoning, Mama Zula’s Fish Fry Seasoning, and Mama Zula’s Chicken Fry Seasoning. 

PI: What was your favorite meal growing up? What meal did mom or granny make if they wanted to put a smile on your face?

JR: Oh man, that’s a hard one because I liked to eat as a kid. I wasn’t one of those picky eaters. You know how some kids don’t want something because it has vegetables. I enjoyed and appreciated meals at home because mom cooked often. I like chicken fried steaks and mashed potatoes or something basic like that. Growing up, I was a casserole kid who wanted green beans, broccoli, or rice casseroles. When I was seven, I started making crunchy cinnamon toast after school. I eventually added that crunchy cinnamon toast to my restaurant menu. When I came home, I had 30 minutes to watch Beetlejuice cartoons and whip up some crazy snacks in the kitchen. I wasn’t one of those kids that liked fast food; I wanted some homemade spaghetti, collard greens, or broccoli. 

PI: If someone were to approach you and say, “hey, I’m doing the LGBT Food and Wine Festival in Chicago or Atlanta. I need you to jump on a plane and come in to be part of these events.” What would you say to that? 

JR: Yes. When? Give me the date, send me the details, and I’ll be there. [Laughs] 

PI: Don’t laugh. I know this guy who’s working on it right now. I told him I’d met you years ago and wanted you to attend the Esteem Awards and perform. It never happened because we ended up hiring a comedian. You have been on my radar of folks to bring in. I’m still figuring out how I found your restaurant page. 

JR: Well, I’m glad you found it. And you know what’s crazy? In 2019, I started doing stand-up comedy. So, I can cook for you and entertain you too. I love it; I’m 100% down. Let me know the dates, and I will be there ready to cook.

PI: What are your plans for the future? What does the future hold for Gritz N’ Wafflez?

JR: I just found a dine-in location, so I’m super excited. I talked to the owner, and we’re in the process of drafting a contract. Eventually, I want to expand into other cities like Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. I want to keep growing until I can sell my restaurants to Darden Restaurants or Brinker International. I love barbecue joints, so I would start all over again. [Laughs]. I want to put smiles on people’s faces. And I like the idea of soul food being upscale, like I’m tired of these holes in the walls. I want high-quality restaurants with excellent service. We can have all that with our collard greens.