Tanya Holland opened her restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, in Oakland in 2008. Despite opening in the teeth of the last recession, she thrived. Soul food-loving crowds lined up outside her original location, the national press came calling, Holland appeared on Bravo's Top Chef, and in 2012 the City of Oakland named a day in her honor for "Her Significant Role in Creating Community and Establishing Oakland as a Culinary Center."
Now, with California's shelter-in-place ordinances keeping customers away from her famed chicken and waffles, Holland is struggling just as so many restaurants are nationwide. But Holland has adapted. She's also teamed up with other Bay Area businesses, organizations, and advocates to help medical first responders and one another.
"The first week was like, 'Let's just move this inventory,' because we didn't plan on being closed, and you're dealing with a lot of perishables," Holland says. "I was just calling everybody I knew who could come grab some food."
Among the people she called were the Berkeley writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who picked up some food for their kids and hatched an idea: What if people could pay for meals (keeping restaurant workers employed) and donate them to health care workers on the frontline of Covid-19 (keeping them fed)? That would be, as The San Francisco Chronicle called a similar effort in San Francisco, a win-win.
Within days, FeedER, as the organization Waldman, Chabon, and others created came to be known, was up and running. As of last week, FeedER raised $233,000, delivering 260 meals a day from Brown Sugar Kitchen and other struggling restaurants, including Kiraku and Hopscotch, to five different hospitals. The group even managed to secure tax-deductible status through another charity called World Central Kitchen.
Marqeta, the payment platform company with a massive flagship office in Oakland, has also contributed funds to set up a group called Oaklanders Supporting Oaklanders, to buy food from Brown Sugar Kitchen and give it to nonprofits helping kids, food insecure families, and the homeless.
For Holland, who was forced to let go of between 20 and 30 employees and close her seating area and bar due to social distancing, the continued production means staying open a few days a week. It may also mean hiring her team back as soon as the quarantine orders are lifted. Customers can also order pickup and soon, for the first time in her restaurant's history, delivery. "People are so appreciative that we're open and doing this," she says.
"People definitely want comfort food: Pies and cakes, mac and cheese." Holland says. "Fried chicken is never going out of style." Unfortunately, she's had to stop selling waffles: "They don't travel, so we're not offering them."
Looking around Oakland's Uptown neighborhood (Brown Sugar Kitchen outgrew its smaller West Oakland location and moved in 2019), Holland sees a ghost town. "Here we are, small businesspeople. We really worked hard to create something, and now we're almost back at square one," she laments.
"It's sad. I love this community," she says. She hopes customers remember to shop and dine local when they can return to life on the outside. "The flavor's gotta stay here. I just have this vision that when the quarantine is lifted, there's just gonna be dancing in the streets. I'm pretty sure of it."