Photos courtesy of Carolyn Ocheltree (above)

Restoring lives and Downtown Fresno with food

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

When you step inside Tree of Life Café and Bakery, there are people sitting around a big screen, cheering, watching the World Cup. The woman at the front counter greets you and leads you into the kitchen, where you meet “Mama O,” the restaurant’s owner who is fast at work, making pies for a catering order.

Mama O, also known as Carolyn Ocheltree, is a storyteller, who graduated from Fresno State in 1983 with a degree in journalism. You may think that her days as a storyteller are long behind her, after being a first grade teacher, stay-at-home-mom, youth group leader and now a business owner, but Ocheltree assures you this is not the case.

“I love to tell stories,” she says while rolling out a pie crust and diving into the beginnings of the restaurant.

In the late 1980s, Ocheltree and her husband, Steve, an accountant who graduated in 1982, became active volunteers with their church, doing a lot of ministry and mentoring work. As they worked with people coming out of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, they noticed that unemployment was the biggest reason people turned back to old habits, and the couple decided they would be the ones to create a safe zone for people to work while getting back on their feet.

Students cooking in a hands-on cooking class at Tree of Life

They entered the Downtown Fresno Create Here Business Plan Competition in 2015, hoping it would help them start up their restaurant, where employees would be those coming out of rehabilitation.

Tree of Life didn’t win the competition, but the Ocheltrees did turn their idea into a reality the following year. And the sentiment of rebirth, renewal and success stretches far beyond the stories of the employees.

Everything in the restaurant is restored and/or locally sourced — from the rustic furniture and artwork in the dining area to the ingredients in the kitchen.

“We don’t want to be a throw-away society,” Ocheltree says as she pours fruit into her pie tin.

“We want to showcase local growers and producers and tell stories through our food. We want people to learn what a great place the San Joaquin Valley is.”
Steve and Carolyn Ocheltree with Fresno Firefighters at the Kitchen Takeover in May

Sitting in “a neat cross section of the city,” the restaurant’s patrons are as diverse as the items on the menu — vegetarian and vegan entrées, breakfasts loaded with bacon and a variety of baked goods. The restaurant also uses its unique space to get people more acquainted with Downtown Fresno, offering cooking classes once a month and hosting community and private events, such as the Fresno firefighters’ Champ Camp fundraiser.

As she puts pies into the oven, Ocheltree says, “We want to make Downtown accessible to people.” And she speaks on the role of Tree of Life in Fresno’s Downtown revitalization.

“It’s easy to complain and talk about what we don’t have here and what we don’t do well. We want to be that place that where people talk about what we do well.”

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