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On June 12, as Black Lives Matter protests rolled through the streets of American cities both large and small, Shanté Norwood received a message from a customer who’d ordered cupcakes for 25 people through her Lompoc-based home bakery, Té’sTees.
“I was just informed that this is a black owned business and with all that’s going on I will be canceling my daughter Heathers order with you,” wrote Brenda Ryan, from Santa Maria. “We are in no way a racists family but I’m sure you and I don’t share the same views and we would like to support a business that does.” (Grammatical errors reproduced as submitted.)
Norwood’s cousin urged her to put the stunning display of overt racism on Instagram. The cancellation went viral, and support flooded to Té’sTees from around the world, with encouragement even coming from Canada and Australia.
“Honestly, I never have had a problem with being a black business owner, or if I did have one, I was very unaware of it — the support I get from the community comes from all different races,” said Norwood, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, moved to Lompoc in 2000, and started her bakery business in 2017. “That’s why I was very shocked. That was the one and only experience that I’ve ever had as long as I’ve been baking where someone approached me in that manner. ”
Aside from this anomaly, Norwood’s overwhelmingly positive and unimpeded experience as an African-American food purveyor is reflected by the five other restaurant/food service owners that I spoke to from this region. Their names were included on a growing list of Santa Barbara County’s Black-Owned Businesses, of which nearly 60 are featured, with 10 in the food sector, from brick-and-mortar restaurants to home bakeries, food trucks, and pop-ups. (The five I did not contact, due to time and space reasons, are Papa Jay’s Southern Quezine in Guadalupe, Bubba’s Chicken & Waffles and Thai Fast Food in Lompoc, and Cristy’s Cookies and Gipsy Hill Bakery in Santa Barbara.)
Three traditional restaurants with black ownership exist in the City of Santa Barbara: Mollie’s and Embermill on State Street and Petit Valentien in La Arcada Plaza, which was not on the business list as of press time. Neither owner is African-American by upbringing — Mollie Ahlstrand of Mollie’s and Serkaddis Alemu of Petit Valentein are both Ethiopian women, while Harold Welch of Embermill is from the Caribbean island of Barbados. “We still experience the same struggle as black Americans,” confirmed Welch, but none of these three have faced overt racism during their many years in Santa Barbara.
Ahlstrand was most effusive. “Santa Barbara people are so amazing — they are color blind,” said Ahlstrand, who served Italian fare at Trattoria Mollie’s on Coast Village Road for nearly three decades before moving Mollie’s to State Street in 2018. “I’ve been supported by white people for 28 years. I don’t ever think of my color.”
Alemu co-owns the French-focused bistro Petit Valentien with her white American husband, Robert Dixon, and they serve Ethiopian brunch on weekends. She considers their Ethiopian menu an educational affair.
“The major part of the motivation was that Santa Barbara needed a representation of good African food,” said Alemu, who explains that the injera, a gluten-free flatbread made from fermented teff, is the star of the show. “Santa Barbara is a bubble within a bubble. But by having these kinds of businesses that show diversity, they are not only opening up the knowledge about where humans come from but showing that our differences are our strengths. I have been received very, very nicely, and people are trying to convince me to be open seven days a week.”
After cooking at San Ysidro Ranch, La Cumbre Country Club, and elsewhere, Welch opened the Hummingbird Café in Solvang a few years ago and then Embermill on State Street at the beginning of 2020, where he serves healthy, vegetarian-leaning Creole and island cuisine. He said any racial problems he’s experienced are “not on the surface,” and believes focusing on such perceived conflicts do not help achieve success.
“When you think hardcore things along those lines, it can kind of stifle your progression,” said Welch, though he admits he’s lived a sheltered life. “At my house, my mom never used a swear word, never a racist word in my house all of our life, so I never really had an issue with race. But there’s a lot of ignorant people out there.”
Welch described an incident last week in which a man complained about not being able to use a coupon and had a “major meltdown” in front of his whole family. To show him that it was about the restaurant’s no-coupon-at-dinner policy, and not the $25, Welch wound up comping the whole meal. “He was an asshole,” he laughed, “and he was African American!”
A longtime employee at AppFolio by day, Charles Myles is just starting out his food business, combining his dad’s dry-rub-heavy Texas roots and his Lompoc upbringing, where Santa Maria–style, red-oak grilling rules. The downtown resident serves tri-tip sandwiches with vinegar slaw, homemade barbecue sauce, and horseradish mustard at Draughtsmen Brewing Company in Goleta every Sunday under the name Mylestone BBQ.
As such a small, once-a-week operation, he was surprised to be included on the list of businesses, but is using it to his advantage, even if this growing interest in support black-owned establishments only amounts to a “blip.” Said Myles, “I want to make the most out of it. I want to be able to continue to grow and scale this business.”
Like the others, he has yet to see problems due to the color of his skin. But there is an anticipation that barbecue — despite the hours of unseen effort and technical skills that go into getting the meat just right — is supposed to be cheap, a problem that also affects so-called “ethnic foods” across the country.
“It’s not quick; it’s labor-intensive. It takes years and years to be able to get to a point when you can nail it consistently,” he explained. “People assume that it’s supposed to be cheap, and they expect it to be cheaper when they just see me there. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Back in Lompoc, Veronica Van Horn of V’s Sweet Treats runs a home bakery like Norwood does, making specialty desserts such as poodle-topped cupcakes (for a dog’s first birthday party!) and sheet cakes covered in fondant designs of Copenhagen chewing tobacco cans or Air Jordan high-tops. She’s appreciating the extra attention for black-owned businesses, which is leading to more social media likes as well as a graphic designer offering to do her logo for free.
“I would love to open a storefront one day, but of course I need to make sure I have enough people to help me with it,” said Van Horn, whose cooking, which she honed at Allan Hancock College’s culinary program, is inspired by both her dad’s African American side and her mom’s Mexican heritage. “A lot of the recipes are family owned, and I pride myself on making it all from scratch.”
She was “totally disgusted” by the message that went to Norwood, explaining, “You could have used any excuse to cancel gracefully.” But that was the first issue she’s seen in her few years of baking, with deliveries that go from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles.
Norwood, meanwhile, continues to hone her craft, which turns traditional desserts into cupcake form. “If you like peach cobbler or apple pie, I turn that into a cupcake,” explained Norwood, who’d like to expand her business into a cupcake food truck.
Like Van Horn, she’s been attending some of the Black Lives Matter protests in Lompoc and is happy that they’ve been peaceful and productive. “It’s led by a few young black kids, the next generation,” she said. “It’s been so beautiful. We’ve had all races out there protesting with us. It’s good to know that we have that support in this little town.”
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