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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Decuir also discovered that she had to accept the limited range of her client base. She marketed as best as she could, but she grew to realize that her food was not appealing to everyone, and there was little she could do about it. "We just don't get the same support from non-African Americans," she said. "It is sad, but it is the truth."

And the restaurant's poor visibility from outside the building made it difficult for the neighborhood population to enjoy her food. "Who is going to walk through here?" Johnson asked. "And if they come inside, the first thing they're going to see is me." The soul food smell permeating into the lobby, he said, was in fact the best and only real advertising for Decuir, and from where he sat, the perfume was quite difficult to ignore. But despite the enticing whiffs, the money was not coming in.

Decuir watched her $15,000 investment slowly disappear. "It is hard to break even," she said. "Often you are losing money — especially in the first couple years. ... We were losing quite a bit."

At about the same time, the losses at Penny's Caribbean Cuisine were deepening the hole in Baten's pocket, and she was exhausted. "I had a lot of family and friend support, but this was really a one-person operation." And in spite of the free labor supplied by her children, her expenses still exceeded her revenues. So she applied for funding from the Minority Business Development Agency, but was denied. She never learned why.

"It was hard," said Baten's daughter Alicia Brooker, who was in her mid-twenties when her mother took on the virtually solo operation. "It was very difficult to see her try to wear so many different hats." Brooker helped out as much as possible, but she couldn't work as much as her mother needed. "She's going to tell you that she could do anything," Brooker said. Although she was proud of her mother, it was painful to see the location and recession hit the restaurant and all of her mother's work so hard.

Baten proceeded to take a loan on her home. She then dipped into her retirement fund. Her partner, Picillo, tried to help in every way that he could. "Sometimes, Kurt would pay my bill, because I just didn't make enough money that week," she recalled. Eventually she filed for bankruptcy, and from there the climb was so steep it was hard not to fall backward completely.

But even amid the economic struggle, Baten remained focused on the highest-quality food — much of which she imported directly from the Caribbean. Ginger beers, masala curry, Caribbean fries, spices and seasoning — she ordered them from abroad or had visiting family and friends from Trinidad bring some with them on the plane. The practice was expensive, but quality wasn't something she was willing to sacrifice.

The growing violence of her neighborhood didn't help, either. During her time on Sacramento Street, she witnessed at least two violent situations that merited police involvement. Her business closed at 11 p.m., and she would have to stay afterward to finish cleanup. The occasional dangers of her block sometimes made her feel unsafe and most certainly deterred potential customers. "It was really the area; people just didn't feel safe," Picillo said. "Reviews would say, 'It was fantastic, just don't come alone.'" But even with press support, too many seats were empty.

Andrew Clewis, a local resident who lives nearby on Stuart Street, said the reviews warning of unsafe streets were absolutely merited. But as a longtime resident of the area, he happily ate at Baten's numerous times. "It was kind of a staple of the community," he said. "If she had been on Martin Luther King, she would have blown up."

Once Baten's mother got sick, the restaurant operator lost momentum. She was completely drained financially, and her mother, who was living on the East Coast at the time, needed her support. So in January 2008, Baten shut her doors and gave up on her five-star dreams. She rushed to the East Coast to be with her mother, and together with her son returned to Trinidad, where she lives today. She even left behind all of her equipment — a sign, she said, of her lingering desire to someday return. Pots, pans, and a freezer are still visible through the graffiti-covered window with fading letters advertising her curry goat and jerk chicken lunches.

"The thing is, I had to go," she said. "Oh, I have really good memories. And I spent more years in America than in Trinidad." She still hopes someday to return to California, where her kids grew up. But going back to the islands was, as she put it, "just another adventure."

Yet for many in the neighborhood, her departure was sudden and disappointing. "We were surprised; it was kind of like she just got up and left with no notice," Clewis said. Citing the nickname that many returning customers had given to Baten, he added: "We miss Mama Roti."

Even at age sixteen, Roslynn Lady Decuir was good at managing a restaurant. In fact, she found most of the job rather easy. "It was routine," she recalled. "Managing the restaurant was really just managing different personalities — different people. The rest is easy." But nearly two decades after Decuir first prayed for a restaurant, she was forced to pray again. Money was very tight, and she knew in her heart that Lady's Place was not going to last. "It was a hard business decision," she remembered. Either the catering or the restaurant had to go. "The question was, which one? And it had to be the one that was financially and physically draining me, and that was the restaurant."

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