The enduring Brown Sugar Kitchen restaurant in Oakland is closing for good

Chef Tanya Holland on opening day at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Uptown Oakland. Photo credit: Sarah Han

After nearly 15 years in the business, Tanya Holland’s groundbreaking Brown Sugar Kitchen restaurant has finally closed the doors of its previous location. The news will disappoint fans of the well-known chef, many of whom (as a glance through hundreds of Yelp reviews will confirm) have traveled from around the world to taste Holland’s Buttermilk Deep Fried Chicken and Bacon Cheddar Spring Cookies through theirs featured prominently on Top Chef, her OWN Network series, and her star-studded podcast. But for Holland, the closure is just another step on their way. “I had to do what I wanted to do for 15 years,” she told Nosh. “But things are developing. Evolution is healthy. “

Here’s the trip so far: Holland opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008 at 2534 Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. “She created this beautiful center,” said fellow cook Nelson German, who describes Holland as a close friend. “There was no pedestrian traffic, but she brought it.” (She brought so much that her original location is now home to another Oakland sensation, Horn Barbecue.)

A decade later, the restaurant moved to Uptown Oakland and opened a stunning 4,000-square-foot flagship store on 2295 Broadway in 2019. Tourists and locals filled the banquets and bar, the former craning their necks to catch a glimpse of a chef they knew from television, the latter ordering gumbo and catfish made from high-quality, seasonal ingredients, as befits Holland’s formal French education the beginning of her career.

“Tanya is a trailblazer,” said cook and writer Preeti Mistry to Nosh. “Now there are a lot of places with good fried chicken. But I remember the first time I went to their restaurant and bit into chicken and waffles. I realized she was thinking of making every aspect of this simple thing so perfect. “

German agreed. “Tanya has Oakland on that [restaurant] Card, ”he said. “She was one of the first to show a different kind of soul food to show what you can do when you really think about the ingredients and what you do in the kitchen.”

At Brown Sugar Kitchen’s flagship Uptown Oakland. Photo credit: Sarah Han

This thoughtful approach extended to every detail of the Uptown Brown Sugar Kitchen, all things Holland had envisioned for years. For example, the sound system came from Berkeley-based Meyer Sound Laboratories, and the decor was chosen “to give the room a high standard of beauty,” said Holland. “My investors and I have put a lot of time and money into this location,” said Holland.

It was a restaurant where “you would see a real cross-section of Oakland,” Mistry said. “Firefighters next to business people next to construction workers next to teachers next to police officers. There aren’t many such places in the bay anymore. “

The restaurant even had Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf among its fans. “Oakland will really miss every ingredient and bite that comes from Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen,” Schaaf Nosh said in a text message. “Tanya’s world-famous soul food has given so many residents and visitors so much joy that it is difficult to imagine a world in which Brown Sugar Kitchen is not on the menu.”

So yeah, everyone who was anyone ended up at Brown Sugar Kitchen, and Holland was a household name, but that outward success doesn’t mean their job got any easier. “People think that if you’re on TV and have a few books, you’ve made it and have all the money,” said German. He was also a top chef contender and is known nationwide, so he understands Holland’s plight. “Just because we have a name behind us and are known … you still work, you still do this job.”

And this job is not easy, even if there is no pandemic. Restaurant profits can be minimal, and even in the best of times they struggle to stay afloat. Another Brown Sugar Kitchen location, this one in San Francisco’s high-profile Ferry Building, closed after less than a year in 2020 as part of a vacancy wave in the structure after new owners reportedly increased the rent per square meter for the building.

Brown Sugar Kitchens signature fried chicken and cornmeal waffles in buttermilk. Photo credit: Sarah Han

That loss, as well as the pandemic that followed shortly thereafter, made it even more difficult for Holland’s remaining business to break even. Holland served takeaway and al fresco dining when it was allowed and opened the dining room when the Bay Area came out of lockdown. Like many other restaurants, including well-funded chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Brown Sugar Kitchen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last May, in a last-ditch effort to save their business by stabilizing their finances and reclaiming their debts through a court order rated – hired trustee.

But still it wasn’t enough. “We were undercapitalized from the start,” said Holland. Add to this the high rents and increasing crime in Oakland, and “It was all too much,” said Holland. “Security. Car break-ins. Murders. A reduced police force.” that people don’t want to come out ”.

Mistry, whose restaurant Temescal, Juhu Beach Club, closed in 2018, said the daily challenges of running a restaurant as a “confident woman of color” cannot be underestimated either. “Being a woman of color, in a leadership position, in an industry that doesn’t respect you really takes its toll,” said Mistry. “Our experience is unique.” Holland agreed. “If you are a black woman who demands excellence, you are easily vilified. I see that people appear so different to white men than they do to me. “

Like many restaurants in the area, Brown Sugar Kitchen closed just before Christmas last year. The original plan was to reopen this week, Holland said. “I have a very benevolent investor who went out of his way to help me keep my business going, but we both recognized that it was throwing good money after bad,” she said. She had already brought the perishable goods from the Brown Sugar kitchen to Town Fare, her vegetable restaurant in the Oakland Museum of California and now her last store in the region. When she made the decision to close Brown Sugar, “I postponed the rest of the meal as well.”

“I’m sorry people couldn’t plan their last meal at Brown Sugar Kitchen,” said Holland. “I wanted to say goodbye one last time, but it just doesn’t work.”

If you expect Holland to sound bitter or bitter, you don’t know them. In fact, she said, since opting for the cap, “I already feel clearer and healthier.” After all: “For the past 14 years, my phone was with me around the clock. I can never turn off my ringtone. There is no day off. But now I can have one. “

Tanya Holland at the Brown Sugar Kitchen bar. Photo credit: Smeeta Mahanti

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to leave the business she’s built over the past two decades. “If we have the opportunity to open up our own space, that is a way of expressing ourselves,” said German. “People don’t know these places are our babies.” That emotional connection with the restaurant is why Holland stayed there for so long, she said. “That was my dream and I just couldn’t let go. But when you get to the place where the money is out, it’s time to let go. “

“Since I know Tanya, I know that this is not the end yet,” said German of Holland’s next act. “She’s a legend. Since she’s black and tan, she’s someone we all look up to. ”Meanwhile, Schaaf is just hoping that Holland will stay in the city. “I can’t wait to see what Tanya comes up with next,” said Schaaf, “and can only hope it’s right here in her beloved Oakland community.”

Mistry wants Holland to take a break and regroup. “There’s all this pressure to just keep going, going on, never stopping,” Mistry said. “I felt that way too, but then I realized that all these work-work-work-things that we value so much somehow kill us.”

“I always create opportunities,” said Holland. “I’m always looking for opportunities to expand and grow.” That means Holland already has a number of projects in the works. She is on the James Beard Foundation Board of Trustees and says her “role as Chair of the Awards will enable me to continue to make a positive impact on this industry.” She also has another cookbook called California Soul due out later this year.

So many articles like this have perhaps undue emphasis on the end of things, with the years of awards, glorious meals and good times, a short paragraph before we return to doom and darkness. However, Holland is certain that this is not the story of Brown Sugar Kitchen. “I made my dream come true,” she says. “How many people can say that? I am sad that it will not go on, but I am fortunate enough to see what I dreamed of happening. “

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