What we’re eating now | Fried chicken and beignets from Brenda’s
By Lou Fancher
Customers at Brenda’s in Oakland, one of three restaurants owned and operated by San Francisco chef/restaurateur Brenda Buenviaje, seek comfort and familiarity. So it’s no surprise that fried chicken, beignets (New Orleans-style plain, apple, chocolate or crawfish donuts), and shrimp & grits with spicy tomato-bacon gravy have been most popular during the pandemic.
“Most of our customers are regulars and the name of the game is comfort,” said Buenviaje in a phone interview. “Not only have we sold a lot of fried foods, we’re selling a lot of alcohol. Since the shelter-in-place, the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) has been more lenient and allows us to serve alcohol for takeout and delivery. We’ve sold a lot of (tropical rum punch) Hurricanes by the quart.”
The fast-casual East Bay location opened in 2019 and specializes in Cajun and Creole cuisine enjoyed by Buenviaje during her childhood in Harvey, a tiny town on the West Bank of New Orleans, Louisiana.
With approximately equal seating indoors and outside on the restaurant’s patio, Beunviaje said ramping up for sit-down dining is tricky. “The patio is a double-edge sword. It’s still a space we need to manage safely.”
Full-service dining on the patio would require adding staff, opening bathrooms to more customers, and exposing servers to people not wearing masks. “We’re trying to avoid creating any kind of crowd at all.”
Managing customers waiting outside for pickup orders already requires a full-time employee. Buenviaje said that indoors, sneeze guards and hand sanitizing stations are in place. After laying off close to 150 people in one day in March, she has been able to bring back about 75 percent of the staff. “The counties have pages and pages of guidelines we’re still going through,” she said. Meanwhile, she expects to open the patio for picnic dining only. “You can sit and eat your takeout food there, but there’ll be no service outside.”
Buenviaje has been struck by the dichotomy of customers who are hyper-vigilant about wearing masks and hand-washing and others, who she said, “you wonder if they’re even aware we have a pandemic.” She hopes people realize masks serve the overall greater good and guidelines for wearing them aren’t personal, but maintain her commitment to make her restaurants more accessible.
As an Oakland business owner, Buenviaje feels the sense of community that inspired her to open the East Bay location in the first place. “We brought a restaurant to the East Bay with a lot of intent and I’m proud to have made that choice. When there was a peaceful protest that started at the tech school up the street from Brenda’s, the landlords called and asked if I wanted to board up our windows. I said, No. I wanted to stay open and participate. I gave my employees the option of staying or leaving and they all stayed.” She and the staff made signs and a neighboring business owner shared a security detail hired to keep an eye on the businesses. “It was a cool exchange; you get to see who your friends are,” she said.
Asked about the longterm impact on her restaurants caused by the pandemic and the protests, Buenviaje, celebrated “an odd silver lining” and “an exciting time and actual change” in long overdue justice measures for people of color and other marginalized people. While embracing the spotlight shining on her as a successful chef, she said she’s dealing with residual issues experienced while growing up in the Deep South and as an adult. “I’m a woman, person of color, queer — it’s taken me a lifetime to get closer to seeing myself.”