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Malibu’s Burgers Brings Vegan Soul to Piedmont

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IMPOSSIBLE No one can say ‘no’ to a vegan burger of such epic proportions.

Darren Preston, a.k.a. Danny Malibu, is too smart, too sophisticated and too serially successful an entrepreneur to believe he, his partners or Malibu’s Burgers’ 100 percent plant-based menu will single-handedly lift up the entirety of Oakland’s Black-owned business community. Even so, Preston—born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens by a single mother, Lourdes Marquez—is likely to achieve many of his far-sighted goals.

In an interview, Preston says about his upbringing, “You can do anything. That’s what my mom taught me. For her being a teenage mom—she had me when she was 14—I had a mother who was involved. My other friends had to grow up too fast because they didn’t have that kind of support. I was able to be a kid and dream big.”

Preston’s latest big dream became a brick-and-mortar restaurant reality after the food truck company he, Natasha Fernández-Pérez and Wahid Brown established in 2019 shifted focus and launched a successful $80,000 GoFundMe campaign. Raised in less than three weeks during June 2020 and despite the still-surging coronavirus pandemic, crowdfunded support underwrote much of the costs required to renovate and open what is arguably Piedmont Avenue’s hottest new burger shop.

Malibu’s Burgers officially debuted in early December. Since then, it has pivoted nimbly along with other food establishments to comply with openings and closings due to Alameda County’s shifting public health guidelines. “We actually grew during covid,” Preston says. “We haven’t felt the effect too much. We’d become friends with our base when we had the food truck, and they’re amazingly devoted. We’re happy to be serving Oakland.”

Preston and his wife and partner, Fernández-Pérez, are Oakland proud. Brown, his best friend, is an Oakland native and third business partner. All three say they are committed to the company’s stable of customers that today includes Bay Area customers, Oakland residents and visitors. From the moment they brought their black-painted school bus to the shores of Lake Merritt, people lined up. The GoFundMe campaign and Bay Area vegan businesses such as The Butcher’s Son and especially Timeless Coffee, whose owners opened their kitchen to Malibu’s Burgers when Preston says the food truck eventually “gave out,” provided vital support.

“I attempted to get loans but kept getting denied,” he says. “As a Black man—and I’m a big guy, well over six feet tall—I’m aware of what some people think when they see me. Sometimes they are standoffish. I went into a high-tier hotel yesterday to ask a question, the guy didn’t say hello, he just asked me what I was doing there. GoFundMe was a better way than a loan to get the help I needed. When you go to the website, you read the story and you don’t see me right away. You base your decision to invest on the work, the history, the business plan and not on me, a big, Black man.”

The racism bites, but Preston learned long ago not to bite back. Which doesn’t mean giving up or retreating silently. It means operating with awareness, intelligence, charm and a cool, determined demeanor that will make it “impossible for anyone to say no to me.” Due to the perseverance of his mother, Preston attended an elite, predominantly white, all-boys boarding school and remembers being roughed up; not at school, but in his own neighborhood. “The racism I experienced in Queens was from Latino boys: in-my-face racism like, ‘Don’t walk on my block.’ At school, I discovered and really got to know white people in a whole different light. I’m aware of what the dominant community sees. There are some allies who just see me as a Black person, but if you’re white and aware, you can see my struggles, too.”

Preston and his partners say expanding the menu and their commitment and efforts to raise the visibility of Black-owned businesses in Oakland are ongoing. The best way to track progress—and learn of the newest additions to the menu—is on Malibu’s Burgers’ social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), or better yet, a visit to the trio’s bricks-and-mortar success story on Piedmont Avenue.