Berkeley restaurants

Oakland’s iconic restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, closes for good

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

After nearly 15 years in business, Tanya Holland’s revolutionary restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, has permanently closed its last location. The news will disappoint fans of the celebrity chef, many of whom (as his hundreds of reviews on Yelp will confirm) have traveled all over the world to sample the raffled buttermilk fried chicken and bacon, cheddar and scallion cookies. . by its leading role on Excellent chef, his OWN Network series and his star podcast. But for the Netherlands, the closure is just another step in its journey. “I was able to do what I wanted to do for 15 years,” she told Nosh. “But things are changing. Evolution is healthy.

Here’s the journey so far: Holland first opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008, at 2534 Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. “She created this wonderful center,” said fellow chef Nelson German, who considers 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 magnificent 4,000 square foot flagship at 2295 Broadway in 2019. Bright and warm, it was immediately a dining destination and was known for its waiting hours. for weekend brunch. . Tourists and locals filled the benches and bar, the former craning their necks to catch a glimpse of a chef they knew on TV, the latter commanding okra and catfish made with high quality ingredients and season, as befits the official French training of Holland at the start of his career.

“Tanya is a pioneer,” 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 his restaurant, and bit into the chicken and the waffles. I realized that she was thinking of making every aspect of this simple thing so perfect.

The German accepted. “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 are doing in the kitchen.”

A waiter walks past two double-decker tables and a bar at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland.
Inside Brown Sugar Kitchen’s flagship Uptown Oakland product. Credit: Sarah Han

This thoughtful approach has extended to every detail of the Uptown Brown Sugar Kitchen, everything Holland had envisioned for years. The audio system was sourced from Meyer Sound Labs in Berkeley, for example, and the decor was chosen “to give a high level of beauty to the space,” Holland said. “My investors and I have invested a lot of time and money in this place.”

It was a restaurant where “you would see a real sample of Oakland,” Mistry said. “Firefighters next to businessmen next to construction workers next to teachers next to cops. There aren’t many places like that in the bay anymore.

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

So yeah, everyone who was anyone ended up at Brown Sugar Kitchen, and Holland was a household name, but that outside success doesn’t mean his job got any easier. “People think if you’re on TV and you have a few books, you did it and you have all the money,” German said. He too was a Excellent chef competitor and is known nationally, so he understands Holland’s fate. “Just because we have a name behind us and an exhibition… you are still working, you are still doing this work. “

And this work is not easy, even when there is is not a pandemic. Profits from restaurants may be minimal, and even in the best of cases, they struggle to stay afloat. Another Brown Sugar Kitchen location, this one in San Francisco’s much-publicized Ferry Building, closed in 2020 after less than a year, amid a wave of vacancies at the structure after its new owners would have increased the rental costs per square foot for the building.

A white plate with chicken, waffles and maple syrup next to a place setting.
Brown Sugar Kitchen signature buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffles. Credit: Sarah Han

This loss, along with the pandemic that followed shortly thereafter, made the balance of business in the Netherlands even more difficult. Holland served take out and offered alfresco dining when permitted, and opened up the dining room as the Bay Area rolled out of lockdown. Like many other restaurants, including well-funded chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Brown Sugar Kitchen filed for bankruptcy last May, a last-ditch attempt to save his business by stabilizing its finances and reassessing its debt with the help from a court. – appointed trustee.

But still, it was not enough. “We were under-capitalized from the start,” said Holland. Add to that the high rents and an increase in crime in Oakland, and “It was too much,” Holland said. Security. Car break-ins. Murders. A reduced police department. German can understand. Its Oakland restaurants, Sobre Mesa and alaMar, are struggling with ‘a high crime rate’ in the area, as’ break-ins and car break-ins, which means people don’t want to go out ”.

Mistry, whose Temescal restaurant, Juhu Beach Club, closed in 2018, said the daily challenges of running a restaurant as a “confident woman of color” also cannot be underestimated. . “Being a woman of color, in a leadership position, in an industry that doesn’t respect you is really taking its toll,” Mistry said. “Our experience is unique. Holland agreed. “It’s easy to be vilified when you’re a black woman who demands excellence. I see that people present themselves so differently to white men than they do to me. “

Like many restaurants in the area, Brown Sugar Kitchen closed its doors just before Christmas last year. The original plan was to reopen this week, Holland said. “I have a very caring investor who has made a generous effort to help me keep my business going, but we both realized that he was throwing money after evil,” she said. She had previously moved perishables from Brown Sugar’s kitchen to Town Fare, his plant-based restaurant in the Oakland Museum in California and, now, his latest business in the area. Once she made the decision to shut down Brown Sugar, “I moved the rest of the food as well.”

“I feel bad that people couldn’t plan their last meal at Brown Sugar Kitchen,” Holland said. “I wanted to say a final goodbye, but it’s just not possible.”

If you expect Holland to look mocking or bitter, you don’t know her. In fact, she said, since I made the decision to close “I already feel clearer and healthier”. After all, “For the past 14 years my phone has been by my side 24/7. I never manage to turn off my ringer. There is no day off. But now I can have one.

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

That’s not to say it’s easy to walk away from the business she’s built over the past two decades. “When we have the chance to open our own place, it’s a way of expressing ourselves,” German said. “People don’t realize, these places are our babies.” This emotional connection to the restaurant is the reason Holland stayed for so long, she said. “It was my dream, and I just couldn’t let go. But when you get to where the money went, it’s time to let go.

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

Mistry wants Holland to pick up a pace and regroup. “There’s all this pressure to keep going, keep pushing, never stop,” Mistry said. “I felt that too, but then I realized that all of these work-work-work things that we enjoy are kind of killing us.”

“I always create opportunities for myself,” said Holland. “I’m always looking for ways to develop and grow. This means that Holland already has a few projects going. She sits on the board of directors of the James Beard Foundation and says 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 titled “California Soul”, which will be released later this year.

So many articles like these perhaps put an inordinate emphasis on how things ended, with years of accolades, glorious meals and good times a quick paragraph before returning to sadness and sorrow. gloominess. Holland is convinced that this is not the story of Brown Sugar Kitchen, however. “I made my dream come true,” she said. “How many people can say that? I’m sad it doesn’t continue, but I’m lucky to see what I dreamed of happening.