Why Community Comes First for Chef Oya Woodruff
“There’s nothing like creating your own space to thrive.”
Oya Woodruff opened her casual seafood shack The Trap on Indianapolis’ East Side in 2017, attracting fans from across the city and shipping her addictive Trap Buttah sauces across the country. Through it all, Woodruff’s commitment to her community has remained constant: the mission of Trap, which stands for Toward Restoring Food Access to the People, is to ensure that whoever needs to be fed is, and that everyone in the city knows they can either pay it forward by buying a meal for someone in need, or claim one of those meals whenever they feel hungry. Woodruff shares her philosophies on food, family, and community. As told to Devorah Lev-Tov.
The very first time I saw a Florida-style garlic crab tray, somebody posted it online and I was like, ‘What is that? I need that in my life’. And when I finally got one when I was in Florida, it was everything that I thought it would be, and I had to come up with a way to take it back home. Because I knew that we didn’t have anything quite like it in Indianapolis. So I started selling them from my porch, but I knew that I also wanted to come up with something all my own, and that’s when I came up with Trap Buttah. I was recipe testing for a couple of months, trying to figure out the right ratio of butter to oil to the seasoning, to figure out exactly the right consistency. When I finally got it, it was amazing. And then I tried it with seafood and I was like, “That’s a wrap. This is it.” Because it also doesn’t taste like Florida-style garlic crab trays. It’s very similar, but there’s nothing on the market that’s like Trap Buttah.
I was selling my seafood boils and sauces on my porch and they got so popular that my dad told me I needed to look for my own space. So I found a space a couple of blocks down the street from where I lived at the time. I paired up with my business partner Candace Boyd-Wylie of FoodLoveTog and she’s the one that actually makes the seasoning—Young Bae—that we use on the seafood along with my sauce.
My dad told me that I needed to find a restaurant because I was having too many people come onto my porch, and a week later, he passed away. So the Trap has also been one of the things that I poured into to help me grieve the loss of my father, because I knew that I had to work on building an actual legacy. I ended up having my mom move in with me and my daughter, and I’m the breadwinner in the house, so to speak.
It never crossed my mind that people would not support the restaurant when we opened. It’s a restaurant in the middle of a food desert. So anytime you put any kind of restaurant in the middle of a food desert, it’s automatically going to have some people come to it because that’s where they can get to. A food desert is basically an area that per capita, does not meet the standards of a fresh food requirement. There’s no way for people to get fresh food or go to the grocery store. The public transportation isn’t that great and it’s very difficult for people to get to grocery stores. Now the year that I opened, there was a grocery store that opened up you know, like a half a mile away. So it has been a little easier for people in the community to get food now. However, I just know that it’s always my duty and position to feed folks, regardless of their ability to pay.
I always say that the Trap has multiple meanings to it: Culturally, we use the word trap as a way to say that we’re working. If we’re trapping, we’re out working, whatever line of work that we’re doing. It’s definitely a hood colloquialism, it’s just one of those things that’s culturally hood. But for us, it also stands for: Toward Restoring Food Access to the People. We choose to connect with people more so than actual full-fledged organizations, but we have lots of folks here in the community that know that when they’re hungry, they can come and get food and they don’t have to pay for it. It’s one of those quiet programs where we have a system of balances where there are lots of people that will buy a gift card, or they’ll come in and say, “Hey, I want to pay for this extra meal, and pay it forward.” It’s one of those things that’s so ingrained in the culture of our restaurant and the way that we do business. If people come to my window and say that they’re hungry, I’m not going to turn them away at all, ever.
Before opening the Trap, there was one particular large chain restaurant that I worked in, and that was probably one of the most challenging jobs that I’ve been in. I’m really authentic in my dealings, and I don’t necessarily feel like I need to code switch when it comes to anything, like when I talk, how I talk, I don’t change the way that I talk for any reason. And I think a lot of times, Black folks have to change the way that they talk to feel like that they can reach people in a different way. Or so we can seem a little, well, a little less Black. And I was really tired of having to live that way, live doubly. I didn’t really feel like continuing to ask permission to do what I wanted to do or be who I am. So I must create my own space. There’s nothing like creating your own space to thrive.