At the Main Street Strong Restaurant Conference, keynote speaker Tanya Holland — Executive Chef and Owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland — shared parts of her own experience as a way to guide aspiring chefs and restaurateurs.
Community comes first
“I’ve noticed throughout my career that restaurants define a neighborhood and then neighborhoods are kind of defined by restaurants.”
When Tanya decided to open a Bay Area restaurant in 2006, she already had an idea in mind: a French Creole bistro, with a menu of French and Louisiana-inspired dishes. She knew that concept would appeal to sophisticated, adventurous diners — but she wasn’t able to secure the kind of space she wanted in the neighborhoods where those customers lived.
She did find a space she loved in West Oakland, which boasted a robust and diverse community that included multi-generational families that migrated from the South decades earlier, urban dwellers, and artists.
“I needed to come up with a concept that was accessible to everyone.”
That’s where the idea for Brown Sugar Kitchen was born: an inclusive space with a warm, inviting menu — where all customers felt welcome.
Tanya’s dedication to community went beyond her restaurant concept. She moved close to the restaurant and began going to community meetings, because there was a lot of redevelopment happening in the area, and people wanted to make sure that the neighborhoods and their unique cultures and flavors remained intact.
Independent restaurants are really important to communities. When the chef lives in the community, and people see them walking down the street — it becomes this very organic relationship. It’s just Main Street. It’s what the United States was built on. It’s the core of our personality. If it were to go away, we would all miss it.
Get ready to work hard — and crunch numbers
When it comes to running a successful business, Tanya says that working for people who ran successful businesses — and watching what they did — was instrumental in her success.
But she readily admits that she learned the most from running her own business.
“There’s a lot that I missed [as a young employee]. There’s a lot my employees don’t know that I’m doing. There are so many hats to wear.”
For aspiring owner/operators, Tanya recommends looking into business-focused education, like the Main St Strong Accelerator, an 8-week curriculum designed to stabilize and adapt businesses for long-term success.
“In order to be sustainable and viable, you really have to know how to work the numbers. It’s so much more than just cooking.”
And don’t take too much stock in the way restaurants are depicted in the entertainment industry.
Because of food media, a lot of people think chefs just hang out, they’re just creative in the kitchen, and they’re having fun, eating and drinking. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that needs to be done. We have really small profit margins, so you really have to be diligent about your food costs, labor costs, and rent costs.
Don’t compromise who you are
As a Black woman in an industry dominated by white men, Tanya says there has been some improvement in the last few years — but as an industry, there’s still a long way to go.
If you look at the industry as a whole, a lot of women will have smaller restaurants or they’ll just have one. You’ll see a lot more male chefs with bigger organizations. It’s just where people send their money, where they decide who has the expertise. I think it’s just people’s perception of the gender roles of a chef, that a chef must be a man, and that’s not the case at all.
In particular, Tanya notes, it’s important that investors expand their portfolios by investing in culinary projects that are run by people of color or women and featuring different cuisines.
There are many talented, creative chefs out there, but “you can only execute so much if your resources are limited.”
Ultimately, Tanya hopes representation in the industry continues to grow.
“A chef should be able to look like anything and anyone — and cook whatever cuisine is authentic to them.”
Adaptability is an important part of many industries — but after 2020, no one knows that better than restaurants.
“I love hospitality and full service and providing an experience for people. Most chefs, you plate your food with intention — you don’t plate it to put it in a box and put a lid on it. But you’ve got to pivot and adjust.”
Watch Tanya Holland’s keynote session
Interested in learning more from Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen? Watch Tanya Holland’s keynote session at the Main Street Strong Conference.
Tanya Holland is also an advisor on the Main Street Strong Accelerator program, advising on Accelerator programming and providing further professional and educational support. Developed in close collaboration with Accion Opportunity Fund, the nation’s leading nonprofit small business lender and support organization, the Accelerator is a new initiative providing financial support and specialized educational resources to women, immigrant and BIPOC-owned restaurants. This program is a continuation of our Main Street Strong Pledge to empower local communities and the newest part of our work to support entrepreneurship and access for historically under-resourced business owners.
Applications are open to restaurant owners and operators who are operating three or fewer restaurant locations, have been operating for 2 or more years, and have 50 employees or fewer across all locations. Applications are open to eligible restaurants regardless of whether they are current DoorDash or Caviar partners. For full eligibility requirements, and to begin your application, visit doordashimpact.com/accelerator.