For these Oakland eating places, recognition is a blessing and a curse

During the pandemic, long-established restaurants closed for good, while newer establishments struggled to gain a foothold. Even restaurants that have managed to attract a loyal clientele say they face staffing issues, delays and bottlenecks in the supply chain, and the toll the service industry is taking on their mental and physical health.

“It’s always difficult to keep up with demand, but that keeps your restaurant alive,” said Merissa Lyons, who with her mother owns the Trinidadian restaurant CocoBreeze, which opened in the fall of 2020. According to Oakland restaurateurs speaking to The Oaklandside, running a successful business is not just about attracting customers, it’s also about solving many other problems that many customers never notice.

The front door of the Lion Dance Cafe. Photo credit: Amir Aziz

Lion dance cafe

CY Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge own the Lion Dance Cafe in downtown Oakland. The two chefs combine a variety of flavors from Teochew recipes from Singapore to Californian Italian sensibilities to cook reimagined, plant-based dishes from Chia’s childhood. The two opened their first brick and mortar store in autumn 2020 after running a pop-up called S + M Vegan for years.

Even as a pop-up, their business drew long lines, but their popularity rose after SF Chronicle’s food critic Soleil Ho named their Shaobing sandwich the best sandwich in the Bay Area. According to Stanbridge, keeping up with demand in a fixed location is very different from running a pop-up. “The nature of a pop-up is scarcity and it is inherently limited, while people expect a restaurant to have every item on their menu,” said Stanbridge.

Chia said that while it is normal in the service industry for a restaurant to run out of ingredients and unable to prepare some dishes, “those are not people’s expectations.”

Consistent supply chain disruptions during the pandemic did not affect their access to fresh produce, but a recent food oil shortage has led them to cut consumption when they can. “Oil is the basis of a lot of recipes, so we can’t really change that,” said Stanbridge.

More often, delivery bottlenecks limit what types of take-away containers and preparation gloves can be obtained. “We were looking for good quality but affordable compostable goods,” says Chia, “and sometimes they’re not just available or the specific product we need doesn’t exist.”

The front facade of La Dolce Vita, which moved to 3931 Telegraph Ave. in May. opened. Photo credit: Amir Aziz

La Dolce Vita Café & Bakery

Tegsti Woldemichael, an Eritrean born entrepreneur who has lived in Oakland for decades, has always enjoyed working for herself. Woldemichael has run a variety of Oakland-based businesses, from a cemetery tombstone design company to a coffee shop, and owns La Dolce Vita, an Italian bakery on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland.

Woldemichael opened his shop last May after “I couldn’t find the type of baked goods I liked, so I taught myself to bake,” she said. Colonized by the Italian government in the 19th century, Woldemichael’s homeland brought dishes like pasta and panettone to the area where they were fused with East African ingredients and flavors. Since opening, La Dolce Vita has drawn a steady stream of neighborhood customers, many of whom are Ethiopians and Eritreans who live nearby and remember their pastry style from their childhood.

Woldemichael’s most popular bakery nearby, Genova Italian Delicatessen, closed in 2016 due to rising rental prices. Her decision to open a bakery “came from how much I love cakes and sandwiches,” she said. “To [Genova] I used to go to Walnut Creek where they moved and then I would say, ‘Why don’t I open this? I love that, I’m sure other people love it too. ‘”

So far, Woldemichael’s biggest struggle has been to find new workers to keep up with demand. Employees have come and gone, and Woldemichael has relied on a constant employee and her sister and son to keep their business going.

“We have a lot of customers, but we couldn’t serve all of them at the same time,” she said. It got to a point where Woldemichael had to remove her business from Doordash’s roster because “we didn’t have enough workers,” she said.

La Dolce Vita was also part of a recent wave of lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by Orlando Garcia, a San Diego man who has filed complaints about wheelchair accessibility and accommodations.

According to Woldemichael, she received a lawsuit from Garcia’s attorney in July alleging that he visited her bakery when it opened in May and that there was no legally required wheelchair-accessible seating.

“We’ve now made it ADA-compliant,” she said, “but now they’re asking for $ 10,000,” a cash settlement that Woldemichael can pay to avoid litigation. While business was going well, Woldemichael said the $ 10,000 payment could permanently close La Dolce Vita. She is still undecided what to do with the lawsuit. “When I start to think about it, I get really frustrated,” said Woldemichael.

Every morning, CocoBreeze co-owner Annabelle Goodridge refreshes the facade of her restaurant. Photo credit: CocoBreeze / Facebook

CocoBreeze Caribbean Restaurant & Bakery

2370 High St. (near Fairfax Avenue), Oakland

Chef Annabelle Goodridge and her daughter Merissa Lyons opened CocoBreeze Caribbean Restaurant & Bakery in East Oakland in August 2020 to rave reviews from the local Caribbean community.

“I think we closed a void because there are a lot of Caribbean shops, stores and restaurants on the east coast, but there seems to be a void on the west coast,” Lyons said.

Goodridge, who immigrated to the Bay Area decades ago, owned the Berkeley Trinidadian spot LaBelle’s in the 1990s and 2000s and ran a catering business thereafter. Over the years, the family’s business model has stayed the same: use quality ingredients to serve a range of traditional recipes like oxtail, goat curry, and roti wraps while offering vegetarian and vegan options.

“We want to make sure we have something that is accessible to all palates, but you still get that real taste,” Lyons said. “I cook a full serving of food every morning, then we have to cook the next serving because we don’t wait for it to run out,” said Goodridge. “Everything has to be fresh”

CocoBreeze’s commitment to using fresh ingredients is not without its setbacks. Meat and product prices continue to rise, according to Goodridge. “Every week they raise the price of oxtail. They grow simple things like garlic – I couldn’t believe it, ”Goodridge said of the price increases for food suppliers across the country.

Aside from current issues like supply chain disruptions and staff shortages, Goodridge said that some of their biggest challenges in the service industry are being a black woman and an immigrant business owner.

“I’ve been in this country for 42 years and people hold us by different standards than others,” said Goodridge. “I had to understand the system America has because they have the [same standard] for black-owned businesses, immigrant-owned businesses, and women-owned businesses. “

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