Tanya Holland on Race, Gender & Opportunity

The chef-owner of Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen wants to expand across the country. Getting access to the capital and real estate to do so has been another story.

March 2, 2016 ● 3 min read

Since 2008, New York native Tanya Holland has been applying her La Varenne culinary training to soul food classics at Brown Sugar Kitchen in "sweet West Oakland." She’s published two cookbooks, appeared on The Food Network and The Today Show, and even served as a soul food “culinary ambassador” for two weeks in Kazakhstan last year—but that’s a story for another time.
Holland wants to see Brown Sugar Kitchen expand across the country. But, she says, as an African-American woman in the kitchen, discrimination is still very real.

My original vision was to do something a lot more elevated than Brown Sugar Kitchen.

I wanted to do an upscale Creole bistro, and I was going to call it Patois. But in West Oakland—10 years ago, when I was looking— people were struggling to even pronounce it. The location that I had access to dictated the concept; I actually tried to open [in Old Oakland], but this guy didn’t want to rent to me. He was questioning whether I had the ability to stay in business (he’s on restaurant three since I opened mine). He said, “Well, you can’t play loud music”— now that place is a club half the time.

I don’t think there always is, but in that situation, I think there was some racism involved. It’s like the whole Oscars thing; the role goes to a white guy, rather than a person of color. People are doing the same thing with the people they’re comfortable with. I’ve had conversations with developers and landlords, and they’ve said they’re not interested, and then I’ll see them make a deal with a white guy with half my credentials, half my exposure and experience.
A lot of people look at me as someone influential in the industry. But in this country, influence is based on access to capital and real estate. If I don’t have that solid foundation to stand on, it makes it a lot harder to influence others. I’m still struggling. The building is so small, we couldn’t do another meal period. It’s not like I can open up a bar.

There’s a big disparity that somebody needs to point out. There’s guys in Oakland with 80-plus seats, full liquor licenses, each taking home a few hundred thousand a year. All the women chefs...Dominica [Rice, owner of Cosecha], she’s got maybe 40 seats. Romney [Steele, co-owner of The Cook & Her Farmer], two-time cookbook author  — 40 seats. Sarah [Kirnon, owner of Miss Ollie’s] has maybe 50, Preeti Mistry [owner of Juhu Beach Club] has about 50. We all want economic opportunity; we’re not in this business not to make money.

I’ve got 50. I’m ambitious — I would like more.

It was hard to find people who looked like me who had done what I did. I realized I’d have to be the pioneer and the mentor. I’m going to achieve my goals—financial and professional—and try to mentor the people who work for me, people who attend my demos or cooking classes or events, and share my knowledge. Before there was someone like Oprah in the media, or Tyra on the cover of Vogue, who ever thought that was even possible? Or Hillary Clinton running for president. What other woman would think, “I can run for president,” unless you have a predecessor?

I get frustrated with the restaurant business, so I’ll focus on writing a cookbook. Or I’ll focus on trying to get a TV opportunity — maybe that will lead to a financial opportunity, or maybe the book will. But my first love is restaurants, and I want more Brown Sugar Kitchens around the country. When I talk about expanding to some people, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I can see you here.” People say that to me all the time. You should be in Rockridge, or you should be in the Ferry Building. Yeah, I should be there! People from Atlanta, people from LA, they come to the restaurant, like, “We need one of you.” I’m like, I know.

I am really grateful for certain opportunities I’ve had. But I’m frustrated, because there are these other opportunities that are just, like, dangling.

When can I get there?

As told to Allison Levitsky | Original image via Tanya Holland