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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The excitement of her unique style of food lasted for only a bit, she said. "When it's all new, everybody's just excited, they don't mind finding parking, they wanted to try the food," she said. "But eventually, it just became a pain in the neck." In the back of her mind, O'Loughlin said, she always knew the Cove was a gamble. Although she thought she was mentally prepared to get out while the getting was good, she says it turned out to be quite hard to accept the truth. "I knew it was going to happen, so it wasn't as bad. But I was really very depressed when I had to close."

Daniel's Caribbean Kitchen has been a trailer kitchen at the Ashby Flea Market for more than ten years. Like Baten, chef Stephen Daniel is an immigrant from Trinidad. He enjoyed cooking for himself but never dreamed that he would cook for a living. In fact, he went to community college to study welding and "get out of the food business," he said. But welding class was full, and culinary art class was open. After he finished classes there, it was back to the food industry for good.

Daniel kept his trailer kitchen open at the weekly flea market and served at many summertime events, including a Grateful Dead concert and several Juneteenth festivals. And in 2004, he set up his trailer on 7th Street in Berkeley each Wednesday through Friday. Small as it was, it was the closest he got to a true restaurant. But eventually he lost his ability to legally sell on the sidewalk, and was forced to stop.

Now he cooks and sells on weekends at the flea market for the love of it. "It has always been out of my pocket," he adds. Daniel's rule is to always have $500 cash for replenishment, so that he can continue to serve his jerk chicken. His wife — who works for United Airlines — also helps keep them going financially, helping him live his discovered dream. "The joy of unfolding beautiful food — I can't give that up. ... This is no joke business. There can't be any 50 percent desire. You have to be fully committed."

Beverly Correa, the managing director of the Oakland Business Development Corporation Small Business Finance, a nonprofit that loans to small businesses, said she has seen firsthand the path of failure that plagues minority owners disproportionately. "Minority-owned businesses may not always have the capital to have the best location." At best, they open in an unprofitable location. At worse, she said, "they can't open their doors." She added that minority-owned businesses frequently have great startup ideas but little experience and little understanding of the difficulties of financing a business.

One such restaurant was Declancy's Welcome Table on Park Boulevard in the Eastlake district. Declancy's had absolutely sensational soul food, recalled Dalton, a consultant to owner Tami Rabb, a single mother of two children. Dalton tried to help make a viable business out of Rabb's muffins, pork chops, and sauce-smothered yams. "She was a woman who could cook her ass off but she did not have any business sense," Dalton said. Rabb did not have the money or courage to invest in vendor accounts for supply delivery, so instead she got up at 6:00 a.m. twice a week and spent hours buying supplies and carrying a ton of canned goods, meat, and vegetables back to her restaurant. The task was draining, and it took some of the life out of her cooking, Dalton said.

After three months, Rabb's business dropped 70 percent. According to Dalton, soon after the flow of cash dropped, Rabb could no longer pay rent for her home, and she and her two sons moved into the restaurant. She did not drop the restaurant – she dropped her home. She was not going to let her dream go. Ultimately, she had no choice and closed her doors.

The failure of these restaurants so often directly impacts the lives of their owners. According to real estate agent Gary Bettencourt from LCB Associates, who represents the property that once housed the Cajun restaurant T.J.'s Gingerbread House in Oakland, chef T.J. Robinson and her family faced foreclosure and closed in 2008. The facade remains fully decorated and landmarked by the city, but the inside is completely trashed, he said. Robinson's 35-year-old fairy tale, which, as a life-sized gingerbread house was a childhood dream come true, just became another minority-owned mom-and-pop fatality.

Hidden inside downtown Oakland's Latham Square Building — literally beyond a small glass double door behind the doorman's desk — Lady's Place was an accessible lunch break for many of the building's occupants. In fact, Decuir was lured to Suite 105 because of her perception of all the hungry workers inside.

At the start of her business, that was indeed the case. Many workers loved her seafood gumbo, New Orleans-style muffuleta sandwiches, and Creole shrimp with spicy jambalaya sauce. But building tenants only made up about 30 percent of her client base, so Decuir also hit the streets in a modest effort to attract outsiders. "We got out on foot, handing out flyers and menus," she said. She also placed as many fliers as the building would permit on the front door, visible to 16th Street passersby.

The initial success of her restaurant — which had two floors, a jazz-and-blues ambiance, several televisions, and even the occasional nightclub transformation — was overwhelmingly exciting to her. "It was a dream come true," Decuir said. "It was such a great feeling. I can't even describe it. I had accomplished my goal."

But the dream was slowly ripped apart as the recession made consumers afraid to spill the contents of their wallets. The pain first began when two large tenants left the building, which already had a low vacancy rate of just 6.4 percent when Lady's Place first opened, according to real estate agent Nick Polsky. Then, in early 2007, the nonprofit fair trade coffee organization TransFair USA left the Latham, taking with it around forty workers. The following August, the California Transplant Donor Network took another forty workers.

Decuir felt their absence. "We were a restaurant inside an office building," she said. "So many moved out and it directly hurt us," she said. And by early 2008 and the formal beginning of the recession, she recalled, many loyal lunch customers began bringing their own food to work and forking over their cash to Decuir a lot less often.

Bill Johnson, the doorman and security guard who began working at Latham just after the restaurant opened, loved her food but sometimes had trouble paying. "She was cooking my kind of food, my soul food," he recalled. Johnson said he would sometimes eat lunch and ask Decuir to let him pay a few days later when he had the cash. She did not mind.

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