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.

When she was sixteen years old, Roslynn Lady Decuir said a prayer to God. She prayed that some day she would own a restaurant. She imagined her own menu, storefront, sign, and kitchen. Cooking was her passion; the Oakland native had always cooked for herself and for her family. But her dream was to run her own restaurant, doing what she loved in the kitchen while serving loyal locals cuisine of her making. “It was my dream,” she said. “I said, ‘One day I am going to have my own family shop.'”

She started her journey modestly, at a Togo’s sandwich shop in Oakland. But she quickly rose through the ranks to manager at just sixteen, and found herself the boss of employees already much older than herself. During tireless years of studying, catering, and managing joints all over the East Bay, she continually set aside money for her goal. And sure enough, in February of 2006, 25 years after taking that first managing job — her dream came to fruition inside the lobby of downtown Oakland’s Latham Square Building.

The path to opening the doors of her restaurant Lady’s Place was steep enough, but the frightening battle to keep those doors open was unlike anything she had ever anticipated or experienced. The hard-earned dollars she had saved during years of corporate catering proved insufficient to sustain her business. After just a single year, Decuir’s short-lived fairy tale began slipping from her grasp.

Decuir is just one of many black restaurant owners who have lost the very dreams that they worked so hard to fulfill. Amid the destructive recession of 2008 and 2009, black-owned restaurants in Oakland and Berkeley have closed at a rate greatly disproportionate to that of other restaurants. Of the eight Caribbean joints listed in last year’s East Bay Express dining guide, half have since shut down. Compare that to one Italian restaurant out of 25 closing its doors, or one out of 28 Japanese/sushi restaurants. Two of four Cajun/Creole restaurants shut down, while only three of the 48 restaurants featuring California Cuisine had to close. The percentage of these black-owned restaurants that have closed is more than five times greater than the overall rate of restaurant closure in the dining guide over the last three years.

East Bay residents have been forced to say good-bye to the Caribbean restaurants Penny’s Caribbean Cuisine, Caribbean Cove, Ital Calabash, and the 7th Street Berkeley location of Daniel’s Caribbean Kitchen; the soul food restaurants Declancy’s Welcome Table and Souley Vegan; the barbecue restaurant Roderick’s BBQ; the African cuisine of Lagosia, Laila’s Ethiopian Deli; and the Louisiana kitchens at T.J.’s Gingerbread House and Roslynn Lady Decuir’s Lady’s Place.

Industry observers agree that such establishments — both one-person startups and venerable eateries passed down through generations — are uniquely susceptible to the storms of recession. Sometimes the diverse international flavors of the East Bay’s dining scene mask the inherent struggles of its multiethnic proprietors. In particular, many black restaurant owners face very distinct challenges.

The slow decline into financial instability is painful for both the owners and customers. In many cases, owners faced a difficult choice concerning a lifetime goal: Walk the path of loans and debt, or face the reality of an unviable business and vacate the kitchen. The financial and emotional drain of a dream swept away is not something that many of these owners will ever forget. The once-open doors of their establishments slowly fade into distant memories of fantasies briefly lived.

Ann Penny Baten made pastries growing up in Trinidad. She baked doughnuts, fried tamales, and sold them independently in her neighborhood. It was a way to make money but it also was her passion. “I’ve always been one of those people who is not afraid of adventure,” she recalled. Baten began her life’s first big adventure in 1982 at age twenty, when she left home for New Jersey with her two-year-old daughter. Many women in her life had stayed home to take care of family, and all her siblings had remained in Trinidad. But Baten wanted something more. “I had a concept in mind,” she said. “Everyone always stayed, but I wanted to be different.”

In Hoboken, she found a job baking at a Dunkin’ Donuts. It was a memorable experience for Baten. “I took the night shift,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.” She spent years in many different kitchens all across the state. “I worked at bakeries; I waited tables. People are hungry for food and this has always been my form of income.”

Years later, the self-professed adventurer sought more change in the form of a cross-country move. In 1990 she headed to the West Coast and settled in Berkeley. She had visited twice before and knew she wanted to stay. She also had a larger dream, yearning to reach a wider market by cooking the foods of her native culture. “I saved my money,” she said. “I always wanted that five-star restaurant.”

Baten began serving Trinidadian food at the Berkeley flea market. Her customers said they wanted her to have a restaurant. “I sold my food to the Caribbean people there, and they would tell a friend and another friend,” she said. So in 2004, together with her business partner Kurt Picillo — who also is the godfather of her son — she gathered enough money to open her very own joint. She found a small West Berkeley location on a seemingly quiet stretch of Sacramento Street near Oregon Street. Her tiny storefront was wedged in between a little apartment complex and a tarot card reader.

She had no trouble coming up with the name: Penny’s Caribbean Cuisine. The quaint space with a few masks on the wall and some vases filled with tropical flowers felt more like a living room than a five-star joint. But it was, as she recalled it, “a home away from home” for her, her two children, and her customers.

From the utensils to the flowers, everything was designed to evoke the tropical feel of the Caribbean, even as cars sped by and fights broke out outside her walls on Sacramento Street. Chutney-soca music filled the room, and the environment was warm. Baten and her children would serve the customers and chat with them at the same time. “It had the love and the music,” she said. “Everybody would stay for hours.”

But the food and not the decor was what made the restaurant a neighborhood magnet. Jerk chicken, goat roti, and alou pie were some of the native Trinidadian highlights. “And oh my God, we had a lot of cultures in there,” she said. While her native Caribbean patrons most appreciated the sounds and smells of the restaurant, Baten said her seats were filled with a diverse base of customers.

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.

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.

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.”

So in April 2008, Decuir once again asked God for support. “I prayed again,” she said. “I went to God and asked for confirmation to close my restaurant.” The wishes of her sixteen-year-old self had come true, and she needed God to confirm that the glory was over, and it was okay to stop. “I don’t care if it was one year or ten years.” She had done what she always wanted to do. “I said, ‘Dear Lord, I need permission to put this dream to sleep.'” And, like so many others, she did.

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