Before the world turned twice over, Matt Meyer and Daniel Paez were understandably giddy. “The dream has always been there. The idea of like, everyone wants their own spot, you know?” said Meyer, longtime sous chef of Oakland’s Hopscotch, who was on the precipice of realizing that dream when he and Paez spoke to Eater SF in February 2020. Co-owning a venture in Oakland was a “no-brainer” for the longtime friends. “This dude’s a bartender and I’m a chef,” Meyer joked. “There was never any back and forth over what our jobs were going to be.” The only difficult part was figuring out what kind of a bar they wanted to run.
They decided to call the place Low Bar, and to eschew the kind of frou-frou attitude attendant to overpriced cocktail bars festooned with hanging greenery. It would be, according to Meyer, “a dive bar that grew up a little bit. Just a little bit, though.”
“Unassuming,” added Paez.
The duo planned a similar bricolage for Low Bar’s menu: Mexican-inspired while making use of California produce, convivial yet sophisticated, top quality but no utensils necessary, and above all, third-culture food. “We’re both very proud to be Latinos, to be a part of the Latinx community,” said Meyer, who grew up near San Diego’s border with Tijuana, where his parents were born. “It’s not uncommon to find a cheeseburger and a hot dog at a taqueria, and sometimes, when you’re a young, scrappy kid skateboarding all day, you get both.”
And so, Meyer and Paez arrived at something all their own: a diasporic dive bar that wouldn’t take itself too seriously, a cocktail comet’s tail from the southern border to Northern California. There would be lamb chicharrones with yogurt and sweet mole, fried soft-shell crab with esquites, a cheeseburger with salsa verde and fried onions. Behind the bar, Paez promised a strong agave program and small-batch spirits from Mexico, where he, like Meyer, has roots. They prepared to debut it this month in the former Hawker Fare space at 2300 Webster Street.
But in March, with the statewide shelter-in-place mandate, construction on Low Bar stopped. Several investors withdrew their offers, which “was emotionally pretty devastating,” Paez wrote in an email last month.
“Within a matter of days I went from ecstatic to feeling like I was living in a nightmare,” Meyer added. Now they hope Low Bar will open by the end of the year. In the meantime, they’ve pivoted to a delivery-only burrito-and-tamale popup called Chancho’s that has operated out of Itani Ramen and, more recently, Oakland’s Heart and Dagger Saloon. It was an audible, not just of concept but of expectation.
Meyer and Paez aren’t the only restaurateurs struggling with access to capital despite being poised for success just months ago. At the beginning of 2020, Uptown Oakland saw the debuts — or planned debuts — of multiple cocktail-centric venues that COVID-19 has since hurled into question, forcing them to temporarily close or, as in the case of Low Bar, forestalling efforts to even begin service. In a city rife with concerns over gentrification, and in a neighborhood where those concerns are especially concrete, these establishments stand out, in part, because their owner-operators identify as Black or Latinx or both, and because they explicitly aim to make the local cocktail scene more inviting and accessible to their communities. Sobre Mesa, for instance, is a stunning Afro-Latino cocktail lounge bathed in Dionysiac forest green and serving Caribbean-inflected food and drinks, informed primarily by chef-owner Nelson German’s Dominican and African ancestry and a particularly inspiring trip he took to Havana.
These bars join longer-standing establishments with BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) ownership in Uptown Oakland, like Starline Social Club and Au Lounge, to cut against the predominant cast of hospitality industry proprietorship in a city where white residents are still 2.7 times more likely than Black residents to own their own businesses, even though Oakland has been nationally recognized for its diversity. In Uptown in particular, fears of displacement have come to a fever pitch over the last year. Technology behemoth Square was set to move into Uptown Station in February — which the Guardian and others reported as heralding greater displacement of longtime tenants, many of whom are Black and Latinx. There was a luxury-housing boom designed to attract millennial HENRYs (High Earners, Not Rich Yet), with developers touting proximity to BART and in-building yoga studios and swimming pools. Then there was the “Uptown” moniker itself, which the East Bay Express attributed to an early-aughts attempt to make the area more palatable to “affluent newcomers” in what it called a “massive gentrification project,” and others called a redevelopment effort, premised on a $75 million renovation of the historic Fox Theater, completed in 2009 under the leadership of Oakland-born developer Phil Tagami.
Put simply, Oakland’s gentrification and its bar renaissance have a complicated history, one that parallels the complex intersection of race and economic displacement that, as Wes Enzinna put in an essay for Harper’s, can lead to “bespoke” sites for consumption that aren’t financially accessible or attractive to many of the city’s established residents. “When Starline first opened and no one really knew what we were about, I had a lot of people wondering if it was another quote-unquote hipster bar,” explained Alex Maynard, part-owner and former bar manager of Starline Social Club, a hybrid bar, restaurant, and event space that opened in 2015 near the 19th Street BART Station.
The phrase, Maynard said back in February, implied the brusque bartenders, unwelcoming attitudes, and long waits often associated with stylized drinking. People of color “can easily feel alienated in that kind of space,” Maynard said — a space that, like “craft culture” generally, is often co-opted by white bodies and white production narratives, as Lauren Michele Jackson wrote for Eater. It’s an image that Maynard wanted to invert at Starline, in part because, in cities like San Diego and Miami, he was frequently one of just a few bartenders of color. “The only way that I knew to really signify that we were trying to be part of a solution,” he continued, “was to make our staff as diverse as possible.”
“That word, ‘diversity,’ was something that I knew before a lot of common words,” Maynard said. “My parents’ philosophy was that the only way to dispel a lot of stereotypes and prejudice is for everyone’s story to be told.” Maynard’s parents, Robert Maynard and Nancy Hicks Maynard, were decorated journalists and the first African Americans to own a major metropolitan newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, which Robert purchased in 1983 after Gannett named him editor in 1979. It was a change that, as Beth Bagwell wrote in Oakland: The Story of a City, was “symbolic” of a broader shift whereby the city’s Black residents came into positions of leadership, unseating an old, predominately white, guard. Meanwhile, downtown Oakland saw commercial growth through the ’80s, halted by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (covering it, the Tribune won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography). Of the ’90s and early aughts, Maynard recalled business flight from the area near his home. “Downtown was pretty desolate, pretty vacant and not very much going on,” he said.
But with the 2009 renovation of the Fox Theater came business concentration and with it, a dense and thriving bar community that catered to the city’s multicultural, albeit changing, population. As young (often tech-based) professionals moved across the bay to escape San Francisco’s skyrocketing rents, housing prices shot up in downtown Oakland too, displacing many of the area’s prior residents. From 2001 to 2011, the city’s Black population declined by 25 percent. According to those reports, Oakland’s population circa the 2010 census was roughly equal parts Black, white, and Latinx (27.3 percent, 25.9 percent, and 25.4 percent, respectively), with Asian residents accounting for approximately 16 percent of the population. Which is to say, Oakland was still diverse, but experiencing a gentrifying wave similar to that described by Conor Dougherty in Golden Gates, and pithily connected to drinking culture this way: “Companies were moving downtown, Sex and the City was in its heyday, and yuppies were engaging in strange new trends like going to goofily hidden cocktail bars and the next day soothing their hangovers with $4 pour-over coffee that takes about thirty-five minutes to produce.”
Meanwhile, Oakland’s bar scene attained a reputation for a certain degree of cocktail quality — a booming craft cocktail renaissance that wasn’t as equitable as it should or could have been, due in part to longstanding inequities that still pervade the restaurant industry and small-business ownership broadly. “There was this real disconnect that is now being bridged because you have more people of color actually running the spaces,” said Maynard, who continues to work in beverage consulting on projects that include German’s Sobre Mesa. People of color in leadership positions, Maynard explained, can expand who feels comfortable participating in craft cocktail culture, including by dispelling hostility toward and discrimination against patrons of color, which can stem from race-based tipping stereotypes. “This notion of Black people not tipping, and people rolling their eyes when large groups of people of color come into a spot,” he said, “all those things are starting to melt away, because people are starting to see more bartenders, servers, and managers that look like them.”
Perhaps, then, a primary impact that BIPOC bar owners have had in Oakland is the redefinition of who belongs in the city’s craft cocktail scene — and who gets to push that scene forward. Three weeks before debuting the Afro-Latino spot Sobre Mesa, in March, German said he hoped to lead by example. “It’s my motivation now to show that, as a person of color, you can think of a great concept that’s super sexy and different and unique.” When asked about the area’s gentrification, German expressed mixed feelings. “For me, as a person of color, I have to take advantage of the positives,” he reasoned, in part because the development has proceeded at breakneck speed and partly because it has presented business opportunities, including for his first restaurant, the critically acclaimed AlaMar. “Even if you look at AlaMar, that whole block is so different,” he said. “We were surrounded by warehouses and parking lots. Now, five condos are there.” If anything, the area’s ballooning popularity has heightened German’s belief that BIPOC bar owners should lead. “Let’s push back,” he said. “If we’re doing really well, and if we’re thriving, and if we’re still building a community, they’re not going to push us out, because we’re part of it. We’re very important aspects to that community, to this area.”
Anna Villalobos, who runs the bar/cafe/restaurant Oeste in Old Oakland, agrees. “People of color have to own more of Oakland,” she told me in early March 2020. “We have to own more businesses; we have to be a bigger voice here than we have been historically.” According to the city’s Equity Indicators Report, business ownership not only enables individual financial empowerment but can help to alleviate racial and ethnic economic disparities, including income and employment inequities. Villalobos, who is Mexican American, was disconcerted by what she saw when she started scoping out locations in 2014 for Oeste, which she owns with Lea Redmond and Sandra Davis, both African American and longtime Bay Area residents. “I got really discouraged early on,” Villalobos explained, “because I felt like there weren’t a lot of people-of-color-owned businesses. Certainly not anybody buying their building.”
Following a multiyear struggle with the city over permitting, Villalobos, Redmond, and Davis opened Oeste in 2017. Apart from turning out stellar cocktails and Southern-inflected food, their priority has been to create a welcoming space, in part by making efforts to have a diverse staff. Entering its third year, Oeste was finally hitting its stride, Villalobos said in February, largely because “people feel so comfortable here.” She added, presciently, “if coronavirus doesn’t put us under, we should survive.”
In addition to new threats from COVID-19, BIPOC business owners have long been confronted by racist attitudes that complicate access to capital, especially when it comes to spirits-forward fine dining venues. “The idea of somebody Black having 136 bourbons? No way. That’s not what ‘we’ do,” Michael LeBlanc recalled of the response when he pitched his now-lionized bar-centric restaurant Picán, in 2009. “My goal was to change the paradigm of what a Black-owned restaurant looked like and what people expected across the board.” LeBlanc wanted an enormous space; Southern food, in particular from his birthplace, New Orleans; and Champagne. “I like to be able to get fried chicken, red beans and rice, and a $125 bottle of wine,” he said.
Investors, he said, were skeptical, despite LeBlanc’s experience presiding over Polaroid Asia Pacific and Brothers Brewing Company, the country’s first African-American-owned craft beer company. “Here you have a guy, corporate America, [who’s] got a concept that people don’t believe in, wanting to do something elegant in Oakland that’s not in Jack London Square” — an area that would later turn out to be the desirable “Uptown” neighborhood. Further bucking expectations, LeBlanc said, he planned to have a dress code, a doorman, and valet parking. The common response was, “‘Hell no, I ain’t giving you no money,’” he said.
After nine months of attempting to fundraise through traditional channels, LeBlanc said he “couldn’t get anybody to bite. Not one person to bite.” That’s when he turned to old friends and colleagues from the corporate world, who offered to invest. Picán opened its doors in March 2009, and the restaurant was praised soon after (including by the Chronicle’s previous restaurant critic) for its food and comprehensive wine and bar programs. The approbation also helped LeBlanc launch a more casual restaurant, Playt, in Hayward in 2018, which he describes as a “soulful Cheers.”
Reflecting on Picán’s success, LeBlanc noted that other nearby Black restaurateurs were prospering, too. “You started to see other people come up and actually do their ideas,” he said. “Folks decided that they can take the chance. I mean, I could see that immediately in Oakland.” In Uptown, he cited as examples Kingston 11, which debuted in 2013, and AlaMar, opened in 2014. When Picán shuttered, in 2017, Tanya Holland moved her beloved West Oakland restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, into part of the 6,500-square-foot space.
At the time of Picán’s closure in 2017, then-general manager Trevor Little said that the restaurant had become a victim of its own success, having helped to attract crowds to the area that then led to an increase in dining competition and labor costs. He described Picán’s shuttering as a “hiatus” until it could be relocated to a smaller, more sustainable space. That was true, but there was an untold personal dimension to LeBlanc’s decision. “The reality is that I got sick,” LeBlanc explained for the first time this February. It was cancer. He received radiation treatments and hormone therapy. “When I tried to work, I just didn’t have the energy. So I decided I would try only on one place.” He chose Playt, his second restaurant.
Now that LeBlanc has recovered, he wants to share his story. “It could be good for folks to know that you can survive cancer, or you treat it, and you keep going,” he said. “You don’t stop life because of it.” In February 2020, as LeBlanc shared plans for a Picán redux, he continued to grapple with inadequate access to capital, a struggle exacerbated by the increasingly untenable economics of ambitious a la carte restaurants. “Even though the industry has moved differently, I want to bring back the elegance of Picán,” he said. As far as location, LeBlanc had his heart set on Picán’s old home, a place he described as having that “magic sauce.” “There’s a fierce loyalty to Oakland if you come up in that environment or if you live in Oakland. It’s open, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s collegiate. It’s funky. It’s a great location.”
But then came COVID-19, which posed questions of basic survival for most independently owned bars and restaurants. While the pandemic struck a blow to the hospitality economy writ large, bars face especially formidable hurdles on the road to recovery, in large part because of their importance as gathering places, as forums for socialization and congregation and camaraderie, all of which are synonymous with crowds. For the foreseeable future, public safety guidelines will complicate, if not preclude outright, that type of assembly, even when bars can reopen. Which means that many of Oakland’s BIPOC-owned bars aren’t simply under threat of shuttering — a future that cannot be divorced from a past of disparate access to credit, among other impediments faced by entrepreneurs of color in Oakland and across the country — but that even if places like Oeste and Sobre survive, and planned establishments like Low Bar and Picán 2.0 materialize, they may be less able to build community because of occupancy restrictions.
In the midst of COVID-19’s first wave came the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the national fury over their deaths; anti-Black, state-sanctioned violence; and police brutality. These events seemed to implicate everything, including the way people eat and drink. Commensurate with the protests, there was momentum to patronize local, Black-owned businesses, and leaders of Oakland’s bar community hope to harness that energy to rebuild a more equitable, post-COVID-19 industry. “‘We’ as a society were never going back to ‘normal’ after corona[virus],” said Maynard of the moment, “and it took people being displaced, bored, out of their comfort zone to find the rage and compassion to help fight for Black lives, for Black people, for Black futures. For all injustice.” In that spirit, Maynard called the groundswell of support for local Black-owned bars and restaurants “encouraging.” He added, “it also allows me to look toward a future where a Black-owned bar isn’t an anomaly or something that is celebrated as an accomplishment for simply ‘beating the odds’ to be one of the few.”
“What I’m really hoping for is that, what’s going on now with the protesting and movements, this one is going to stay,” German said in early June of the outpouring of support for AlaMar, which has continued takeout and delivery throughout the COVID-19 crisis. “In the last two days there has been an enormous amount of orders, because people want to support Black businesses and just businesses of color. So I think because of what’s going on, there’s going to be help and a big boost for all of us of color who own businesses.”
In the long term, expanding opportunities for capitalization and marketing are crucial next steps to fortify BIPOC bar ownership. “The biggest challenge, then, and for me now, is capital. And our access to capital is limited,” LeBlanc said in February. “Some of my colleagues now, they’re on their third, fourth, fifth restaurant, and I’m still hustling to get funding.” Adequate capitalization is a challenge faced disproportionately by Black bar-restaurateurs, and especially Black female entrepreneurs, as Tanya Holland told the James Beard Foundation.
Improving capitalization will be crucial to rebuilding a more equitable hospitality industry, and that, in turn, can yield a more diverse staff and clientele. “Many of us will need some assistance,” LeBlanc reiterated in June, when he described Playt’s struggles to survive. “And if we can have access to networks, so that those that have the purse strings can get a feel for the character and the business acumen, they might be more willing to take a chance so that we don’t have to pay premium interest rates and can pay interest rates like everybody else. Because our net worth may not be the same. Our credit may not be the same. And those are the variables that people are going to look at.”
Even as they struggle with inequitable financing, BIPOC bar-restaurateurs, like many others, are also being forced to consider pandemic-proof models. LeBlanc says that he is still in conversations over a Picán redux, but may opt instead for a new takeout restaurant. Sobre Mesa, when it reopens, will seat at half the capacity German had once planned, compelling him to rethink how the bar will generate sufficient revenue. Villalobos said that Oeste must be rebranded from bar-centric to food-centric in order to pay the bills, which have remained as Oeste saw a cataclysmic drop in revenue over the last three months. “It’s drastic,” Villalobos said. “Ninety-five percent and change we’ve lost in sales, at least. It’s no joke.” Villalobos isn’t sure whether Oeste can afford a marketing firm to assist with a conceptual shift, but they are considering it. “It is simply out of desperation, and we need to be something else.”
Meanwhile, Meyer and Paez remain sanguine, even though they’re back on the search for investors. “Obviously this was never the plan,” Meyer observed. “But we realize that the road to fully opening the bar we envisioned will take longer than anticipated.” They have, accordingly, reenvisioned their Low Bar dream to emphasize takeout, at least initially, which Meyer said is a temporary step to building a community. “To-go-only cocktails and food will be just another hurdle to get to where we want to be — which is in our packed bar, drink in hand, possibly crowd-surfing.”
Kathryn Campo Bowen is a Bay-Area based writer.