Lisa Spencer holds her breath when her youngest son, Myles, leaves their home in East Palo Alto.
He's 15 years old now — not yet an adult, but old enough for his parents to sit him down for a conversation about how to behave in any interactions with police officers.
"You have to behave better than other people," Spencer tells her son. "If a policeman comes up to you, you can no longer be the person that we raised you to be, which is to debate things that you feel are wrong or to fight for your rights. You have to suddenly be docile. You can't move your arms. You have to just sit there and be quiet in order to be able to come home safely. Don't reach for anything. Don't argue.
"In America or any other country in this day and time, that is not something you should have to be telling your black children," she said.
Spencer runs Savor Seasoning Blends, a homemade rubs and spices company, out of her home with her son and husband. She's been wading through deep feelings of anger, disbelief and helplessness since the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed in police custody in Minnesota on May 25. His death has sparked impassioned nationwide protests, including locally, against police brutality and racism in America.
In interviews, African Americans who run food businesses on the Peninsula expressed a mix of dismay and hope, at once heartened by the momentum driving the protests and worried that this will not mark a turning point in the United States' long history of violence against black people. Each of them condemned the looting and violence, worried it would distract from the underlying message of the peaceful protests.
Claire Mack, 83, is the owner of Claire's Crunch Cake in San Mateo. Before she started selling her cakes out of her home, she was a public servant for most of her life. In 1991, she became the first African American woman to be elected to San Mateo's City Council and went on to become the city's first African American mayor. A plan to build public housing in north central San Mateo, where mostly people of color lived at the time, propelled her to run for office. She fought to preserve the neighborhood and for jobs programs for local youth.
Mack has lived in San Mateo her entire life and has deep roots in the community. Her mother and aunts and uncles went to school with the men who went on to become the city's policemen. She's served on numerous local boards, commissions and organizations and won community service awards. Her youngest daughter is a colonel in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of many family members who have served in the military.
"I served my city as the mayor three times. I believe in this country. Yet when stuff like this happens, it's — excuse me," she paused, starting to cry. "It makes it a very tough road to walk."
Mack still lives with a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week fear for her life.
"I'm a person who has very good relationships with the police department, at least in my city and with most police, but there's still a fear that when I'm out that I could be Sandra Bland. That is a reality," she said, referring to an African American woman who was arrested and died in jail in Texas following a widely criticized traffic stop in 2015.
When Mack recites the Pledge of Allegiance, she doesn't say "with liberty and justice for all."
She says, "with liberty and justice for some."
Spencer, who grew up in East Palo Alto and now works at Facebook, supports the peaceful protests but thinks meaningful change will have to come from within law enforcement.
"Police have got to say 'no' when they see their partners doing these things and they don't feel good about it," she said. "They have to say, 'This isn't right. Take your knee off this person's neck.'"
She's felt heartened by the images of law enforcement officials across the country taking a knee with protesters, some joining hands across protest lines, or the Michigan sheriff who took off his helmet and walked alongside a peaceful crowd of protesters. In early June, the East Palo Alto Police Department posted to social media a video of an officer kneeling with protesting teenagers.
"All police aren't bad just like all people aren't bad but if you don't break the chain, then your silence isn't going to stop that organization," Spencer said. "I think that was my glimmer of hope, seeing those police. ... We need more of that."
Keith Richardson opened Keith's Chicken N Waffles in Daly City almost four years ago, serving fried chicken legs and thighs with Belgian waffles, candied yams and mac 'n' cheese that people tell him remind them of their grandmothers' cooking. He's been feeling a sad form of deja vu from the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
"To me, it's kind of a repeat. The only difference is Rodney King lived. We didn't have to see a man die. As far as the justice system is concerned, it's just a repeat," he said.
The Rodney King riots felt like an expression of "straight anger," he said, while the current protests have a different feel.
"This hurt is different. This hurt is a different pain than before," he said. "This one is you're angry but you're really devastated; you can't believe what happened right in front of you and how the other officers just let it happen."
Sandra Dailey, a Palo Alto native who now runs a catering company in Santa Clara, is active in the community as the former president of the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet of Silicon Valley, a member of the board of directors of African American Community Services Agency and a volunteer with Hunger at Home, which serves meals to people in need. But she can't help but feel "paralyzed" at this moment.
"My heart is heavy. I feel fearful for my men in my family," she said of her two sons and husband.
This fear is nothing new for Dailey, who said growing up in Palo Alto her brothers were often stopped by the police. But she feels hopeful when she sees positive police leadership — she lauded San Jose Chief of Police Eddie Garcia as an example of a transparent communicator — and a new level of discourse about race relations.
For Menlo Park resident Max Fennell, founder of Fenn Coffee, this moment feels different only in terms of "other people showing outrage. But for a black person, no. We've been fed up a long time," he said.
Yet it's lit a fire under Fennell, not unlike Mack three decades ago. He's thinking about running for a seat on the Menlo Park City Council to have a direct hand in improving local police-community relations.
Fennell, a professional triathlete who was profiled in The New York Times as the sport's sole African American athlete, said he's been pulled over by police four times in his five years living in Silicon Valley. Once he was driving down Willow Road toward Highway 101 with bottles of Fenn Coffee espresso shots in his lap. An undercover cop pulled him over. Hand on his gun, the officer asked Fennell what was in his lap. Fennell explained it was one of his company's products. He said the police officer told him he thought it was cough syrup, and that there had been issues with abuse in the community recently.
"If anything, this continues to wake something up inside of myself," Fennell said. "I think people are frustrated. I'm frustrated." He's now asking himself: "Max, are you just going to post Instagram posts or are you going to give up the next four years and be in service for your community?"
For people searching for tangible action to take during this time, Mack urged them to speak up, to vote, to go to city council meetings, to get involved in their communities.
"All of us can do something," Mack said.
Asked whether this moment feels like a turning point, she was cautiously optimistic.
"At 83, I don't know. I'm hoping so," she said. "The election is going to mean a lot. What gives me hope and heart is that the marches and the protests have been multicultural.
"The marches and the protests," she said, "look like America."
Along the Peninsula
If you're looking for other ways to support the black community, now and in the future, below is a list of Peninsula black-owned food and drink businesses.
The Cocktail Chick, East Palo Alto: Nicole Steward-Crooks runs this mobile cocktail service and will deliver mimosas, Georgia peach margaritas and other drink creations for free within the 650 area code and farther flung for a fee. To place an order, text 650-307-9301; facebook.com/TheCocktailChick/
The Cookout, Mountain View: The Cookout, a food truck started by Mountain View native Rod McGee, serves Southern-style catfish and red snapper fried in cornmeal batter, as well as "old English" style beer-battered cod and halibut. 1350 Pear Ave., Mountain View; 650-300-9945. View facebook.com/thecookoutft for hours and more details.
BackAYard Caribbean Grill, Menlo Park: Robert Simpson has built a reputation for quality Jamaican fare at BackAYard, from braised oxtail with fried plantains to Jamaica's national dish, ackee and codfish. 1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park; open for takeout and delivery Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 650-323-4244; backayard.net.
Coconuts Caribbean Restaurant & Bar, Palo Alto: Simpson also owns Coconuts, which during the shutdown has been serving a limited menu of Caribbean fare and to-go cocktails in downtown Palo Alto. 642 Ramona St., Palo Alto; open for takeout and delivery Tues.-Sun. 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. 650-329-9533; coconutspaloalto.com/index.html.
Claire's Crunch Cake, San Mateo: Claire Mack's crunch cakes, modeled after her daughter's favorite cake from the now-closed San Mateo bakery Blum's, are layered sponge cakes encased in crunchy honeycomb candy. Blum's was famous for its coffee and lemon flavors; she's added her own chocolate and strawberry versions. To place an order, call 650-344-8690. Cash only and pick up at her home in San Mateo. 233 N. Grant St., San Mateo; clairescrunchcake.wixsite.com.
The Famous Rib Shack, San Bruno: Pork and beef ribs, "slabs o' meat," brisket sandwiches and sides like collard greens with ham are on the menu at this Southern barbecue restaurant. 223 El Camino Real, San Bruno; 650-952-2809; facebook.com.The-Famous-Rib-Shack.
Fenn Coffee, Menlo Park: Max Fennell's small batch coffee roasting company sells fair-trade, organic beans, cold-brew espresso shots and other bottled coffee drinks, available for purchase online or at several retail locations (The Willow's Market in Menlo Park, Bianchini's Market in Portola Valley, Delucchi's Market in Redwood City, The Market at Edgewood in Palo Alto, Burlingame Market in Burlingame and Trag's Market in San Mateo). fenncoffee.com.
Ginger Snap Shots by Stephanie, East Palo Alto: Stephanie Robinson sells bottled shots of ginger and fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juice mixtures, such as pear, ginger, lemon, lime and green apple. stephaniesgingersnapshots.com.
Jonathan's Fish & Chips, East Palo Alto: This local food truck, which Phyllis Cooksey opened as a now-closed brick-and-mortar restaurant on Willow Road more than 20 years ago, is still turning out some of the best fried catfish in the area, plus fried snapper, prawns, okra and hush puppies. It's parked outside College Track at 1877 Bay Road, Tues.-Sat. from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can call ahead to place an order: 650-323-1092; facebook.com/jonathansfishnchips.
Keith's Chicken N Waffles, Daly City: Keith Richardson's fried chicken, waffles and sides are available for takeout during the shutdown. He's opening a second location in South San Francisco this year that will serve a Southern breakfast menu. 270 San Pedro Road, Daly City, CA; open for takeout and delivery Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 415-347-7208; keithschickennwaffles.com.
Lillie Mae's BBQ: Rhonda Manning left a career in the semiconductor industry for a life in restaurants, cooking recipes she learned from her grandmother, the namesake of her business. Her first restaurant, Lillie Mae's House of Soul Food, was located in Santa Clara. Lillie Mae's is currently delivering smoked beef brisket, fried chicken, honey cornbread and other Southern fare to cities, including Santa Clara, Los Gatos, Sunnyvale and Cupertino on Fridays-Sundays. Orders must be placed 24 hours in advance; call or text 408-227-7685; lilliemaesbbq.com.
MB's Place, San Carlos: Michael Brown, a San Francisco native who grew up in Pacifica, is known for his award-winning "three-way" chili made from three types of meats (ground chuck, chicken and filet mignon) and white, kidney and black beans. His chili won the top spot at the Palo Alto Chili Cook Off in 2019, among other local competitions. Brown also makes tacos, burgers and other fare. His catering business, MB's Place, is open for orders by calling 415-748-4222 or available for delivery on doordash.com.
Rare Candy Smoothie Co., East Palo Alto: This mobile smoothie outfit is run by a Menlo-Atherton High School teacher and football coach. Flavors include peach mango, piña colada and strawberry kiwi. Pickups are available in East Palo Alto as well as pop-ups in San Francisco and Oakland. For locations and menu, check Instagram.
Red's House, Daly City: This Jamaican pop-up dinner series, run by mother and son duo Sharon and Christopher Russell , is open for takeout and delivery, serving jerk fried chicken wings, curried goat stew and a whole fried escovitch fish. They're also accepting donations to provide meals to people in need during the pandemic. eatreds.com.
Savor Seasoning Blends, East Palo Alto: Order Lisa Spencer's homemade rubs, salts, spice blends — and her popular "Vampire" butter with garlic, sea salt parsley and basil — online for pickup in East Palo Alto or delivery. Also available at The Market at Edgewood in Palo Alto and Delucchi's Market in Redwood City. savorblends.com.
Shampa's Pies, Pacifica: Haruwn Wesley named his Pacifica bakery after his mother-in-law, who told him to "get out of the water and start baking," the website reads. (He's also an avid surfer.) His apple cobbler, sweet potato, chocolate cream and other pies are available for pickup at the bakery and at the Burlingame Farmer's Market on Sundays. Call 415-412-3592 to place an order or order online. 1625 Palmetto Ave, Pacifica; shampaspies.com.
True Ethiopian Cuisine Catering, San Carlos: This local catering company, which makes traditional Ethiopian dishes with spices imported from Ethiopia, is also open Thursday-Sunday for pickup orders (minimum $35). Call 650-335-5767 or order online. 113 Garnet Ave., San Carlos; trueethiopiancuisine.com.
Virtual event to be held on race and the food business
A panel discussion, "Black Food Matters: Race and Local Food Entrepreneurs," with some of the food entrepreneurs featured in this week's cover story will be held on July 1, 6-7 p.m., on Zoom.
Elena Kadvany, author of the Peninsula Foodist newsletter, will moderate the conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and the experience of black food business owners in Silicon Valley. Joining her will be Claire Mack, owner of Claire's Crunch Cake in San Mateo and first African American mayor of San Mateo; Lisa Spencer, owner of Savor Seasoning Blends in East Palo Alto, and Max Fennell, owner of Fenn Coffee in Menlo Park.
To reserve a spot at the virtual event, go to eventbrite.com.