What Is Killing the East Bay's Soul Food Restaurants? 

The recession has been hard on restaurants of every type, but it's been particularly hard on the owners of soul food, Caribbean, or Louisiana kitchens.

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Baten had personally invested $40,000 in her restaurant, allocating every last dime in her pocket. "I definitely would have liked a lot more — at least $100,000 to start," she said. But she put in what she could, and after Picillo invested another $20,000, they had just enough to open their doors to the community. What they did not have was any emergency money. And after a few years, the financial emergency arrived.

The factors that lead to closed doors are difficult to measure. The proprietors of Oakland's surviving soul food and Caribbean joints describe many different problems for black-owned restaurants in the East Bay. These are inherent challenges that exist with or without recession — but with recession, of course, they are magnified and multiplied.

Peter Jackson, the executive chef at Miss Pearl's Jam House — a white-owned Caribbean restaurant of 8,000 square feet in Jack London Square — said his restaurant survives thanks to its busy location and large menu. But he is also well aware of the challenge of image.

"As far as being Caribbean, the identity is more difficult," he said. The wealthier East Bay populations are far more likely to find themselves in familiar Italian restaurants, he argues, and not often eating curried goat. "They sort of don't give us a chance, and it is not taken as seriously as a cuisine." Jackson, who has been in the local food industry for 25 years, said it is hard to ignore local inequities and how they affect his industry. A disproportionate number of African Americans don't have the money to spend eating out, he said. "Those hit the hardest can't support the cuisine that reflects their culture," he said.

Employees at Nellie's Soul Food on 3rd Street in West Oakland believe that the general perception of their restaurant — which has been run by Nellie Ozen and her family for more than thirty years — makes it difficult to market to a wider audience. "People think our food is lower-class dining," said Maudie Foster, a current manager and chef at Nellie's. "They think they can go to better places to get better quality." While this is not always the case, she said, the bottom line is that "most people with money are not spending here." Manager Marcus Cathey, Nellie's grandson, said a lot of the restaurant's customers come from the typically poor flatlands of West Oakland. And during the recession, these customers are coming less and less. Cathey said "cooking out of love" is what keeps the restaurant going.

So how does Nellie's stay alive? Foster said it is just barely surviving. "It is terrible," she said. The restaurant recently had to lay off seven workers, and if the management hadn't done that, the restaurant would have had to close, she said. "I'm not really okay," she admitted. "By the grace of God, we've barely just got by. But really, we've got our head just above water."

Kevin Westlye, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said the current economy has tested local restaurants unlike anything that has occurred in the last 75 years. Nationally, he said, the profit margin for the restaurant industry is a relatively low 4 percent. And in Oakland, where Westlye has spent much of his life, it averages just 2 percent. But for small minority restaurants with low capital, he added, it is typically just 0 to 2 percent. "Then you add in a significant recession, and they can go upside down," he said.

Westlye said immigrant owners can often be misled into signing leases in B-locations for A-location prices — which can be a death sentence from the start. And with cuisines of niche cultures like Caribbean, Westlye said, there is often only room for one, maybe two competitors. "A restaurant needs to look at how broadly accepted their cuisine is," Westlye said. He believes that very often the restaurants that shut down do not appeal to more than 30 percent of potential diners.

Indeed, the one African-American cuisine that seems to be most resilient during the recession is the one with the broadest popular appeal — barbecue. Unlike Caribbean or soul food, barbecue is universally appealing, said Dorcia Darling, manager of the 35-year-old Everett and Jones restaurant chain. "It is really the barbecue," Darling said. "Every culture has some form or fashion of it. And it is not too hard on the pocket." But even established mainstays like E&J say they are seeing a lot fewer customers entering their doors.

Stephanie Dalton, who has been working in and managing local restaurants for 25 years and is now a program assistant at a four-year hospitality and management degree program in San Francisco, said there is inherent discrimination in the sector, and it begins with disparities in education. "It's an extremely conservative old white boys' club," she said. Dalton said that she is constantly frustrated by the lack of diversity she finds in her program. "If you look at the educational programs, we have one student out of twenty that is black," she said. And this lack of education cripples minority owners who are trying to run restaurants.

"That is the bottom line," she continued. "It's shocking and it's pervasive in the industry." Dalton, who has volunteered her consulting services for two Oakland soul food joints, said that a passion for cooking is just not enough. "Food is their soul — they are literally putting their soul out there, but they are not putting a business plan behind it, and until you put the two together, you will fail."

Each restaurant closure is the story of a lost dream. The depression these owners face as they say good-bye to their kitchens creates a real personal struggle.

Judith O'Loughlin opened Caribbean Cove in a small upstairs retail space on Telegraph Avenue in South Berkeley in 2004. After catering and simultaneously running a tiny joint on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland called Caribbean Kitchen, she decided this was the next step in her food career. She thought moving up to restaurant-friendly Telegraph Avenue would be an improvement from her MacArthur location's countertop and six stools. But, as she now recalls with a nostalgic laugh, "Moving on up was a downfall." Eventually, her catering service was fully supporting her restaurant — and she knew that was not sustainable.

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