Normanites in the Spotlight: Joe and Rebecca Sparks

If you’ve been in Norman for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Legend’s Restaurant. There’s no arguing that the business boasts a storied history with which few Norman establishments can compete. In the weeks following a significant milestone for the restaurant, Legend’s co-owners Joe and Rebecca Sparks have spent a lot of time reflecting on the profound bond that their business has created between them and the Norman community.

Legend’s Restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sept. 15, commemorating this landmark event with a Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting. Afterward, the restaurant gave away about 600 pieces of their famous lemon cake to the crowd of supporters that stopped by to celebrate their favorite Norman staple. Before the ribbon cutting, long-time customers were invited to the restaurant for a special wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres.

In the time leading up to the anniversary celebration, the restaurant started bringing back popular menu items from the past that long-time customers were likely to recognize and enjoy. Joe and Rebecca Sparks also designed t-shirts to give away at the anniversary gathering, proudly proclaiming that the restaurant was “still cooking after 50 years.”

“It’s hard to survive in the restaurant business,” said Rebecca, “so we both feel so proud and honored that we’ve been able to keep this going through all the ups and downs throughout the decades.”

For example, many Norman residents may remember the strict Oklahoma liquor laws of decades past, when state authorities would raid restaurants and shut down the ones caught illegally serving hard liquor. During this time, the Legend’s owners built wooden lockers in the restaurant to hold their customers’ personal stocks of alcohol. They even built a small, fully-licensed liquor store on the premises to make sure that their customers had the option to be served drinks legally with their food.

Of course, that system wasn’t convenient for anyone – the restaurant was losing money by not being able to sell alcohol and customers couldn’t enjoy their favorite mixed drinks with their meals unless they purchased entire bottles of liquor and brought them to the restaurant. Something had to change, and Joe Sparks stepped up to the plate. He was instrumental in championing the legislation that allowed restaurants to start selling liquor by the drink in 1985.

If you visit Legend’s today, you can still see some of the wooden liquor cabinets that the owners have left intact. They are remnants of another era, reminding customers of the restaurant’s place in Norman’s history.

Legend’s Restaurant started out as a pizza delivery service in 1967, located on Norman’s South Navy Base. The business moved to its current location, 1313 W Lindsey Street in 1968, after experiencing tremendous success in their first year of business. Along with the new building, they added new menu items, including steak, sandwiches, salads and house-made desserts.

The restaurant stopped selling pizza in 1972 in favor of a more sophisticated menu. Their current menu has evolved since, keeping the sophistication of that 1972 menu with beloved Legend’s classics and seasonal menu that changes quarterly. Joe and Rebecca Sparks enjoy responding to the inspiration that they find from the world around them, integrating innovative new menu options for their customers.

“We’re always looking for ways to stay fresh and keep people excited about coming back to Legend’s,” Rebecca says. “We want our menu to stay very classic while incorporating newer menu items that our customers may not have tried before.”

Some of the newer items that have been most popular with Legend’s customers are the mole shrimp, spicy curried shrimp and adobo chicken. However, you don’t have to worry that your favorite Legend’s staples will be rotated out anytime soon. The Sparks are mindful of customer favorites, such as the chicken crepes, chicken salad, fresh seafood and steaks.

Joe Sparks has been with Legend’s Restaurant since the very beginning. He signed on in a managerial capacity three months after the restaurant opened, becoming one of about 10 of the restaurant’s stockholders. Joe and his wife Rebecca, who started working at the restaurant almost 40 years ago, became sole owners of Legend’s Restaurant in 1980.
The couple, both Norman transplants, are grateful for the way that the community has embraced their business over the years, and now they couldn’t imagine living anywhere outside of Norman.

“This is our home,” said Joe, gesturing to the restaurant around him. “Our whole careers have been involved in this restaurant and intertwined in the community.”

In fact, they live less than a mile from Legend’s and their daughter, Eva—now a junior at OU—basically grew up in the restaurant. She started taking fresh muffins to the tables during Sunday brunches when she was only 8 years old. Now, Eva still likes to do catering and wait tables at the restaurant a couple of times a week, which is always a treat for long-time customers who grew to know her through the years.

Legend’s Restaurant has been incredibly involved in the Norman community during the past five decades, with co-owners Joe and Rebecca actively working with many Norman organizations, including Norman Public Schools and the Norman Public Schools Foundation, Firehouse Art Center, the Norman Chamber of Commerce, Norman Community Foundation, Norman Art Foundation and Friends of the Norman Public Library. The Sparks also played a big part in plans for the reconstruction of the West Lindsey Street corridor.

“We feel like we are a part of Norman, and Norman is a part of us,” Joe said with a smile. “We’re so happy here, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep Norman growing in a positive direction.” – BSM

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