It took about 25 hours for Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge to well and truly realize that their plan to open a permanent location for their popular vegan pop-up, Lion Dance Cafe, might actually work. Sure, they’d been selling out for years, attracting long lines and rave reviews when they’d appear at venues around Oakland, then named S+M Vegan. But the decision to open their own place, in the midst of a pandemic and when everyone’s money seems tighter than ever, is “a risk,” Stanbridge says, even with a shaobing sandwich that’s been selling out within minutes on pre-order.
But still, they forged ahead, making the press rounds with their plans to open in a restaurant space at 380 17th Street, in Uptown Oakland. But even then, they fretted — the cash reserves they’d hoped to open with (in better times) were nearly gone, as their catering business had been decimated by the pandemic. When Eater SF spoke with Chia and Stanbridge the first week of August, they were hopeful, but very, very worried. “We know that no one has any money right now,” Chia said then. “It almost feels inappropriate to ask for more.”
They closed their eyes and took that leap, anyway, launching a Kickstarter in hopes of generating the final $50,000 they needed to get up and running in the new space. They hit their goal in 25 hours.
“It had to be 25,” Chia says with a laugh. “It still couldn’t be in the first day.” They’re both elated, but it’s not just about the money. “It feels really, really good that so many people want to see this restaurant happen,” she says.
“We were concerned that we wouldn’t hit our goal at all,” Stanbridge says. Instead, “we were just watching it go up and were like ‘what is happening?’” Chia says.
In the days since, the fundraiser has continued to grow, and at publication time it’s almost $17,000 above what they’d hoped for. They’re now hoping to reach a stretch goal of $75,000, enough to buy a combi-oven that will allow them to prepare “hundreds” of dumplings at a time instead of the handfuls they painstakingly steam by pan now.
The extra funds will also help them “broaden our menu to make a lot more traditional dishes from Marie’s childhood,” Stanbridge says, which has always been the focus of Lion Dance: to take items like laksa and char kway teow and make them plant-based. Now, they’ll be able to do that with new recipes and menus, thanks to the generosity of their fans.
Lion Dance is still on track to open next month, Chia and Stainbridge say. After getting the keys to the location — which, most recently, was home to Liba — the pair have been working every day to ensure that it’s in perfect shape for an upcoming health inspection. And now, they “know for sure that all this work isn’t for nothing,” Chia says. And even if they don’t hit that $75K goal in the 13 days left on their Kickstarter, that’s OK. “We know that the times have changed for the worse yet again,” she says, referring to the fires burning across the Bay Area. “We won’t take it personally” if the Kickstarter stalls here. “We’re already just so grateful.”