Bay Area restaurant owners are joining the national debate about immigration policy.
President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on the issue has sparked the Sanctuary Restaurants Movement, which launched in early January and now counts more than 240 restaurants across the country. The Bay Area is home to about two dozen participating restaurants, including Alfred’s Steakhouse in San Francisco, Cancun Sabor Mexicano in Berkeley and Flea Street in Menlo Park.
|CAN WE SHARE A MEAL?|
Another national protest — dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants” — took place Thursday, where foreign-born workers and students stayed home to demonstrate their importance to the country’s workforce and way of life; several dozen Bay Area restaurants closed for the day in solidarity.
Nationally, the restaurant industry relies heavily on immigrant labor. Restaurants employed 2.3 million foreign-born workers, or more than 8 percent of the foreign-born workers in the country, according to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of foreign-born workers, 7.1 percent have jobs as food preparers or servers, compared to 5.1 percent of U.S.-born workers, according to data from the 2015 census. The data also show 27 percent of California’s entire population was foreign born — twice the national percentage.
“On an emotional level, it disturbs me that we’ve gotten to a place where we have to actually put signs up letting people know that everyone is welcome,” said Preeti Mistry, chef-owner of Oakland’s Juhu Beach Club. “There was a time when this was just understood.”
The sanctuary restaurant movement has gained momentum across the country in recent weeks as Trump’s controversial immigration ban was enacted (and then halted by a federal appeals court). More recently, reports of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids have put the restaurant industry on high alert.
“Look around. That’s not the way things are anymore,” Mistry said.
Mistry, a second-generation immigrant whose parents are from India, was one of the first chefs in Oakland to register her business as a place with zero-tolerance policies toward racism, sexism and xenophobia. In her Telegraph Avenue restaurant is a sign that reads “Welcome all: shapes, sizes, colors, sexes, languages, cultures, beliefs, ages, preferences, statuses, faiths. You are home.”
As of Feb. 13, 245 restaurants across the country were signed up to be sanctuary restaurants, according to Tim Rusch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United.
On the same day, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly released a statement saying ICE raids conducted the previous week had resulted in 680 arrests in various cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio, Texas, and New York City. Kelly said the operations targeted individuals “who pose a threat to public safety, border security or the integrity of our nation’s immigration system.”
“We were worried about the treatment of immigrants, and already a few weeks into the administration we see what’s happening. I have no doubt it could get worse,” said Amy Brown, co-owner of San Francisco’s Marla Bakery. Brown was one of San Francisco’s early registrants, along with chef Daniel Patterson, whose name is tied to seven different businesses on the sanctuary status list.
Bicycle Banh Mi is a Vietnamese American, LGBTQ and women-owned small business near Levi’s Plaza in San Francisco. Owner Jess Nguyen said she registered the restaurant as a sanctuary on Jan. 29 because she is “fighting for progress in areas which Trump is targeting.”
“Reading the news about Trump’s immigration policies and executive order was a big catalyst,” Nguyen said. “It hit close to home.
“I thought about my parents, who escaped Vietnam for the chance of a better life here. I thought about the food and restaurant community, our shared kitchen and our staff members. We’ve all exchanged stories of what our families had to sacrifice in order to be be living in America.”
Berkeley’s 1951 Coffee isn’t on the official sanctuary restaurant list, but the month-old cafe operates like one, employing a staff of refugees, asylum seekers and special immigration visa holders. Its mission is to teach its multicultural staff, all of whom are new to the country, how to create successful lives for themselves.
Co-founder Doug Hewitt said he was glad to see so many restaurants pushing for social change.
“Restaurants, and in our case, cafes, occupy an important place in society,” Hewitt said. “They are one of the few places in which our public and personal lives merge together. We gather with business partners or friends. We dine with family or teammates. But all too often the workers are a backdrop to the food and beverage.”
While the number of sanctuary restaurants in the Bay Area continues to grow, Mistry said she noticed there were businesses avoiding the political fray, despite having cause to participate.
“Not everyone is going to have the same political views. I get that,” Mistry said.
Ultimately, signing up for the movement, no matter how symbolic it might be, is a stance for what she believes in, she said: “At the end of the day, it’s all about showing up and making your voice heard.”