As nationwide protests against the killing of Black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked Black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
Chef Tanya Holland opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland in 2008 and moved to a newer location in the Uptown neighborhood in 2019. A well-known presence in the city's culinary scene, and a one time contestant on Bravo's Top Chef, Holland has kept her business going during quarantine by pivoting to takeout and serving donated meals to frontline medical workers through an organization called East Bay FeedER, started by her friends, writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Here, she talks about the challenges of being a Black business owner in a city experiencing the one-two punch of Covid-19 and street protests and heightened police aggression following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. --As told to Matt Haber
Being a Black business owner in Oakland now is interesting.
Yesterday, I was walking home from the grocery store when I passed people protesting. Here I am, this Black woman walking home with two bags from Whole Foods, and all these White people are walking toward me with Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
I haven't been on the street during protests, because I've been working all day and at home at night. But I feel like I don't have to protest--that's all I've been doing my entire life.
On Friday, the business owner next door, who's also an African American woman, brought me a poster that says "Black Owned," which I put in the window. It was like Kryptonite to the protestors. The next day was our biggest sales day during Covid. A lot of it was donated meals. So, clearly people were putting their money where their mouth is and supporting us.
I don't feel worried for my business, really. A neighbor who lives upstairs from the restaurant told me that he witnessed this mayhem on our street over the weekend, this scene of chaos, people running around tagging. Then, they got to Brown Sugar Kitchen and they just stopped, looked, and kept going. The "Black Owned" poster seemed to be quite the repellent. We were intentionally spared. I felt more concerned for my entire community, which was being damaged. One business next to me got annihilated with tagging. I just didn't like the chaos.
But at the same time, emotions are really high. I've never been one to talk about reparations, but I kind of feel like maybe that's what it's going to take. The lack of access and equity and inclusion--it just keeps building and building. There's going to have to be some big shifts to make up for the decades--centuries--of misalignment.
We just want to be seen and heard. I want my thoughts and experiences to be validated. I don't want separation. I want a unified, diverse, and integrated community. That's one of the reasons I went into the restaurant business--so I could create an environment where that could exist peacefully.
Even before these protests, I've been talking about the challenges I face as a Black woman in business. I was on a call last night with female colleagues, and we were all talking about how we haven't really been compensated for our work or expertise the way men in our industry have. Everyone thinks I'm so successful--and I have had accomplishments and I have built a brand that's known--but I don't have the same wealth and security as my male counterparts.
I'm not asking for a hand out. I'm just asking for the normal support that I see others receiving as far as opportunities and access.
I kind of feel I can speak more openly now, because there's clear support. For years, I've been trying to get Danny Meyer to mentor me. Then, yesterday, I did an Instagram Live with the sous chef at [Meyer's restaurant] Gramercy Tavern, one who's an African American woman, and I thought, "Now's the time to reach out to Danny and ask him for some more help." And he agreed to be on my podcast.
In general, I don't know what happens from here. It's really just one day at a time. In Oakland, we're such a tight community of chefs and restaurateurs. We're all just trying to figure out what is going to be our new normal. I had some thoughts about a kind of collective--maybe we can be a prototype for what business looks like in the future.
As far as the neighborhood healing, I don't know what that looks like. The podcast I host is called Tanya's Table. I bring in diverse leaders for a meal, and we talk about bridging cultural divides and creating understanding. So, you know, I'm kind of living it already.
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