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During the pandemic, long-standing restaurants have closed for good while newer establishments have struggled to find their footing. Even restaurants that have managed to amass a loyal clientele say they face challenges with staffing, supply chain delays and shortages and the toll the service industry takes on their mental and physical health.
“It’s always difficult to keep up with demand, but that’s what keeps your restaurant alive,” said Merissa Lyons, who with her mother owns Trinidadian restaurant CocoBreeze, which opened in the fall of 2020. According to Oakland restaurateurs who spoke with The Oaklandside, managing a successful business isn’t just about attracting customers, it’s about juggling loads of other issues that many customers never notice.
Lion Dance Cafe
Lion Dance Cafe
380 17th St. (near Franklin Street), Oakland
C-Y Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge own Lion Dance Cafe in downtown Oakland. The two chefs combine a variety of flavors from Teochew Singaporean recipes to California Italian sensibilities to cook reimagined, plant-based dishes from Chia’s childhood. The pair opened their first brick-and-mortar business in the fall of 2020 after years operating a pop-up called S+M Vegan.
Even as a pop-up, their business attracted long lines, but their popularity increased after SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho proclaimed their Shaobing sandwich the best sandwich in the Bay Area. According to Stanbridge, keeping up with the demand at a permanent location is quite different than running a pop-up. “The very nature of a pop-up is scarcity and it’s sort of inherently limited, whereas with the restaurant, people expect you to have every item listed on your menu,” Stanbridge said.
Chia said that while it’s a normal occurrence in the service industry for a restaurant to run out of one ingredient and not be able to make some dishes, “It’s not people’s expectations.”
Consistent supply chain disruptions during the pandemic haven’t had an impact on their access to fresh produce, but a current food oil shortage has made them conserve use when they can. “Oil is at the base of many recipes, so we can’t really change that,” Stanbridge said.
More often, supply shortages restrict what kinds of takeout containers and prep gloves they can procure. “We’ve been looking for high quality but affordable compostable goods,” Chia said, “and sometimes they’re not just available, or the specific product we need doesn’t exist.”
La Dolce Vita Cafe & Bakery
La Dolce Vita
3931 Telegraph Ave. (near 40th Street), Oakland
Tegsti Woldemichael, an Eritrean-born entrepreneur who’s lived in Oakland for decades, has always liked working for herself. Woldemichael has operated a variety of Oakland-based businesses from a cemetery headstone design firm to a coffee shop, and owns La Dolce Vita, an Italian bakery on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland.
Woldemichael opened up shop this past May, after “I couldn’t find the kind of baked goods I liked, so I taught myself how to bake,” she said. Woldemichael’s home country was colonized by the Italian government in the 1800s, bringing dishes like pasta and panettone to the area, where they were merged with East African ingredients and flavors. Since its opening, La Dolce Vita has attracted a steady stream of customers in the neighborhood, many of whom are Ethiopians and Eritreans who live nearby and recall her style of pastries from their childhoods.
Woldemichael’s favorite nearby bakery, Genova Italian Delicatessen, closed in 2016 due to rising rent prices. Her decision to open a bakery “comes from how much I love cake and sandwiches,” she said. “After [Genova] closed I used to drive to Walnut Creek where they moved and then I said, ‘Why don’t I open this? I love this, I’m sure other people love it too.’”
So far, Woldemichael’s biggest struggle has been finding new workers to keep up with the demand. Staffers have come and gone, and Woldemichael has relied on one consistent employee, plus her sister and teenage son, to keep her 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 directory because “we didn’t have enough manpower,” she said.
La Dolce Vita has also been part of a recent wave of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits filed by Orlando Garcia, a San Diego man who has filed lawsuits over accessibility and accommodations for people who use wheelchairs.
According to Woldemichael, she received a claim from Garcia’s attorney in July stating that he visited her bakery when she first opened in May, and that it didn’t have legally-required wheelchair-accessible seating.
“We made it ADA compliant now,” she said, “but now they’re asking for $10,000,” a cash settlement that Woldemichael can pay to avoid a battle in court. While business has been good, Woldemichael said that paying the $10,000 could close La Dolce Vita permanently. She is still undecided regarding what to do about the suit. “When I start thinking about this I get really frustrated,” Woldemichael said.
CocoBreeze Caribbean Restaurant & Bakery
2370 High St. (near Fairfax Avenue), Oakland
Chef Annabelle Goodridge and her daughter Merissa Lyons opened East Oakland’s CocoBreeze Caribbean Restaurant & Bakery in August 2020 to rave reviews from the local Caribbean community.
“I think that we bridged a gap because there’s a lot of Caribbean shops, stores, and restaurants on the East Coast but on the West Coast there seems to be a void,” Lyons said.
Goodridge, who immigrated to the Bay Area decades ago, used to own Berkeley Trinidadian spot LaBelle’s in the 1990s and 2000s, and operated a catering company after that. Throughout the years, the family’s business model has remained the same: use quality ingredients to serve an array of traditional recipes such as oxtail, goat curry and roti wraps while offering vegetarian and vegan options as well.
“We want to make sure that we have something that’s approachable to every palate, but you’re still getting that real flavor,” Lyons said. “I cook a whole batch of food each morning then we have to cook the next batch of food because we don’t wait until it runs out,” Goodridge said. “Everything has to be fresh.”
CocoBreeze’s commitment to using fresh ingredients isn’t without its setbacks. According to Goodridge, prices for meat and produce continue to rise. “Every week they raise the price of oxtail. They raise simple things like garlic — I couldn’t believe it,” Goodridge said of the price increases for food suppliers across the country.
Apart from current issues like supply chain disruptions and understaffing, Goodridge said that some of her greatest challenges in the service industry stem from being a Black woman and immigrant business owner.
“I’ve been in this country for 42 years, and people hold us at a different standard than they hold other people,” Goodridge said. “I had to understand the system that America has, because they don’t hold the [same standard] for Black-owned businesses, immigrant-owned businesses and women-owned businesses.”