Fans of the locally famous skillet-fried chicken, saltfish and ackee, and other Afro-Caribbean dishes at Miss Ollie’s will want to put in one last takeout order before the end of this month: After that, the well-loved Old Oakland spot will likely no longer exist as a conventional restaurant. But Miss Ollie’s isn’t going on hiatus, or turning into a ghost kitchen, or disappearing from the scene entirely. Instead, starting in January, it will morph into a new project called Sanctuary, a nonprofit venture focused on providing a platform for Black creators — chefs, yes, but also artists and other creative folks.
“I don’t feel like we’re closing,” chef-owner Sarah Kirnon says of Miss Ollie’s. “We’re making this where it will become something for a much bigger audience.”
Practically speaking? Instead of a restaurant storefront, Kirnon envisions a large outdoor space filled with food, music, and art provided by a revolving lineup of chefs- and artists-in-residence. Picture some hybrid of Off the Grid, a farmers market, an art museum, and Carnival in the Caribbean — with a dash of Oakland’s own BBQing While Black for good measure.
Kirnon says she’s spent the past several months plotting this next step in her business’s evolution. She and co-founder Miles Dotson, who runs a startup studio called Devland, describe the project as “a homestead to nurture, empower, and sustain the dreams of Black creators in the community.” Sanctuary will function as the umbrella organization for a variety of different community-oriented events, the first iteration of which — Kindred — will launch in February. The exact location (likely an empty lot in Downtown Oakland or West Oakland) is still being finalized, but the idea is to create a weeklong, outdoor, socially distanced event that spotlights the food and art of the African diaspora.
Kirnon says a big part of her motivation was a desire to carve out a space for Oakland’s Black community — a community disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis that, through years of displacement, has seen its culture slowly get erased. To counter that, Kirnon drew inspiration from the Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean: “It’s a celebration of people’s work. It’s a celebration of people’s art. It’s where you see a lot of people that are what you look like.”
The other driving force behind the pivot, Kirnon says, was the stark economic reality that the coronavirus pandemic laid bare. In fact, Kirnon says, “I believe the brick-and-mortar model of having a restaurant doesn’t exist anymore.”
The idea, then, is to transition to a model that isn’t tethered to the overhead costs of a restaurant space. Meanwhile, Kirnon and Dotson are in the process of applying for nonprofit status for Sanctuary. The initial launch will be paid for through grants and additional fundraising, but the idea is for the project to eventually be self-sustaining.
It’s a bittersweet moment, though, for fans of Miss Ollie’s, which was one of a small crop of vibrant, electrifyingly delicious restaurants that helped turn Oakland into a national dining destination in the early 2010s — and which, from the time it opened, consistently featured some of the most diverse dining rooms of any restaurant in the Bay Area.
For her part, Kirnon wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Miss Ollie’s, in its current form, might still be preserved — she says she’s still in talks with her landlord to figure out whether there’s a future for the restaurant, or for its nonprofit successor, in that Swan’s Market space. “If someone gave us $100,000 or $200,000 to keep Miss Ollie’s open for the next six months, I wouldn’t say no,” Kirnon says. “There is no, ‘This is the last day’ yet.”
Still, barring that kind of eleventh-hour cash infusion, the restaurant has reached a crossroads. And even if Miss Ollie’s were to somehow live on for another six months or a year, Kirnon says she would still step away from its day-to-day operations in January to focus on getting Sanctuary off the ground.
Kirnon’s own food will likely find its way onto the menu at Sanctuary, so devotees of that fried chicken still have hope to snag one of those gorgeous, herb-infused birds. But the core of the new food program will be the various guest chefs, many of whom will be “Black and brown kids” who work at prominent restaurants but have never had a chance to cook their own food, Kirnon says — “talented chefs who have never had a voice that represented them.” Sanctuary will give them that opportunity. In that sense, the project echoes former Oakland chef Preeti Mistry’s plans to open a farm-restaurant with a residency program for BIPOC guest chefs.
Christian Washington, a Chez Panisse alum who has been a frequent collaborator of Kirnon’s in the past year, has been tapped to run the food program, which, as they explain, consists of inviting and then working with those various guest chefs.
At first, COVID-19 restrictions will likely place some restrictions on the in-person aspects of Sanctuary. But Washington says their ideal vision of it as “a place to dance, a place to eat, a place to buy groceries, and a place to hear someone sing live or read some of their poetry — all while you can get some amazing food from a guest chef visiting from Barbados or somewhere.”
It’s a grand vision — a moonshot of sorts. But it’s one that Kirnon and her team believe represents what the local community actually needs and wants from its chefs at this time. “I think this model is going to turn into a blueprint for food service to survive in the future,” Washington says. “Who wants to sit in an empty dining room with a white tablecloth and have a seven-course meal?”