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

After nearly 15 years in business, Tanya Holland’s game-changing restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, has closed the doors of its last location for good. The news will disappoint the well-known chef’s fans, many of whom (as a spin through its hundreds of Yelp reviews will confirm) traveled from around the world to get a taste of Holland’s buttermilk fried chicken and bacon-cheddar-scallion biscuits, drawn by her prominent role on Top Chef, her OWN Network series and her star-studded podcast. But to Holland, the closure is just another step on her journey. “I got to do what I wanted to do for 15 years,” she told Nosh. “But things evolve. Evolution is healthy.”

Here’s the journey thus far: Holland first opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008, at 2534 Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. “She created this beautiful hub,” said fellow chef Nelson German, who calls Holland a close friend. “There was no foot traffic there, but she brought it.” (She brought it so much, in fact, that her original location is now home to another Oakland sensation, Horn Barbecue.)

A decade later, the restaurant moved to Uptown Oakland, opening a stunning, 4,000 square foot flagship at 2295 Broadway in 2019. Glossy and warm, it was immediately a dinner destination, and was known for its hours-long wait for weekend brunch. Tourists and locals packed the banquettes and bar, the former craning their necks to catch a glimpse of a chef they knew from TV, the latter ordering up gumbo and catfish made from high-quality and seasonal ingredients, as befits Holland’s formal French training at the start of her career.

“Tanya’s a trailblazer,” chef and author Preeti Mistry told Nosh. “Now there are a lot of places with good fried chicken. But I remember the first time I went to her restaurant, and I bit into the chicken and waffles. I realized that she thought about making every aspect of this simple thing so perfect.”

German agreed. “Tanya put Oakland on the [restaurant] map,” 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’re doing in the kitchen.”

Inside Brown Sugar Kitchen’s Uptown Oakland flagship. Credit: Sarah Han

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

It was a restaurant where “you’d see a real cross-section of Oakland,” Mistry said. “Firefighters next to businessmen next to construction workers next to teachers next to cops. There aren’t a lot of places like that in the Bay anymore.”

The restaurant even counted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf as a fan. “Oakland will truly miss every ingredient and morsel that came from Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen,” Schaaf told Nosh in a text message. “Tanya’s world-famous soul food brought so much joy to so many residents and visitors, it’s hard to imagine a world where Brown Sugar Kitchen isn’t on the menu.”

So yes, anyone who was anyone ended up at Brown Sugar Kitchen, and Holland was a household name, but that outward success doesn’t mean her job got any easier. “People think that if you’re on TV and you have a couple books, you have it made and you have all the money,” German said. He, too, was a Top Chef contender and is nationally known, so he understands Holland’s plight. “Just because we have a name behind us and exposure…you’re still working, you’re still doing this job.”

And that job isn’t easy, even when there isn’t a 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 down in 2020 after less than a year, part of a wave of vacancies in the structure after its new owners reportedly increased the square foot rental fees for the building. 

Brown Sugar Kitchen’s signature buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffles. Credit: Sarah Han

That loss, plus the pandemic that followed shortly after, made it even harder for Holland’s remaining business to break even. Holland served takeout and offered outdoor dining when it was allowed, and opened the dining room as the Bay Area emerged from lockdown. Like many other restaurants, including well-funded chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Brown Sugar Kitchen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last May, a last-ditch attempt to save her business by stabilizing its finances and reassessing its debt with the help of a court-appointed trustee. 

But still, it wasn’t enough. “We were undercapitalized from the beginning,” Holland said. Add to that high rents and increasing crime in Oakland, and “It was all too much,” Holland said. “Safety. Car break-ins. Murders. A reduced police department.” German can relate. His Oakland restaurants, Sobre Mesa and alaMar, are struggling with “a high rate of crime,” in the area, such as “car break-ins and burglaries, which means people don’t want to come out.”

Mistry, whose Temescal restaurant, Juhu Beach Club, closed in 2018, said that the daily challenges of running a restaurant as “a confident woman of color” also can’t be understated. “Being a woman of color, in a leadership position, in an industry that doesn’t respect you really takes its toll,” Mistry said. “Our experience is unique.” Holland concurred. “It’s easy to get vilified when you are a Black woman who demands excellence. I see people show up so differently for white men than for me.”

Like many restaurants across the area, Brown Sugar Kitchen shut down just before Christmas last year. The original plan was to reopen this week, Holland said. “I do have a very benevolent investor who has made a generous effort to help me sustain my business, but we both came to realization that it was throwing good money after bad,” she said. She had already moved the perishable items from the Brown Sugar kitchen to Town Fare, her plant-based restaurant in the Oakland Museum of California and, now, her last business in the region. Once she made the decision to close Brown Sugar, “I moved the rest of the food, too.”

“I feel bad that people didn’t get to schedule their last meal at Brown Sugar Kitchen,” Holland said. “I wanted to do one last farewell, but it’s just not possible.”

If you expect Holland to sound mopey or bitter, you don’t know her. In fact, she said, since making the decision to shutter “I’m already feeling clearer and healthier.” After all, “For the past 14 years, my phone has been by me 24-7. I never get to turn my ringer off. There’s no day off. But now I can have one.”

Tanya Holland at the bar of Brown Sugar Kitchen. Credit: Smeeta Mahanti

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to just walk away from the business she built over the last two decades. “When we have a chance to open our own place, it’s a way to express ourselves,” German said. “People don’t realize, these places are our babies.” That emotional connection to the restaurant is why Holland hung in there for so long, she said. “This 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.”

“Knowing Tanya, I know this is not the end,” German said of Holland’s next act. “She’s a legend. Being Black and brown, she’s someone we all look up to.” Meanwhile, Schaaf just hopes Holland stays in town. “I can not wait to see what Tanya dreams up next,” Schaaf said, “and can only hope it’s right here in her beloved community of Oakland.”

Mistry wants Holland to take a beat and regroup. “There’s all this pressure to just keep going, keep pushing, never stopping,” Mistry said. “I felt that way too, but then I realized that all these work-work-work things we prize are kind of killing us.”

“I always create the opportunities for myself,” Holland said. “I’m always looking for ways to expand and grow.” That means Holland already has some projects in the works. She’s on the board of trustees for the James Beard Foundation, and says that her “role as chair of the awards will allow me to continue to make a positive impact in this industry.” She also has another cookbook, this one called “California Soul,” coming out later this year. 

So many articles like these have a perhaps inordinate emphasis on how things ended, with the years of accolades, glorious meals and good times a quick paragraph before we get back to the doom and gloom. Holland is firm that that’s not Brown Sugar Kitchen’s story, though. “I got my dream to fruition,” she said. “How many people can say that? I’m sad it won’t continue, but I am lucky to see what I dreamed happen.”