There’s something about Menbere Aklilu. Maybe it’s the way she calls everyone bella. Maybe it’s the affection she pours onto her friends and customers. Or maybe it’s the way her honest eyes well with tears when she talks about her past, and the fruitfulness of the present.
Whatever it is, she is a woman who is not easy to forget once you’ve met her.
Aklilu is the owner of Salute E Vita Ristorante, an upscale Italian restaurant located on the waterfront in Richmond’s Marina Bay. This Thanksgiving, for the first time, Aklilu, her staff and a number of Richmond’s household names will serve Thanksgiving dinner to 300 homeless and needy individuals from the Richmond community.
“It was in the back of my mind all these years to give back to people who need it,” Aklilu said. “Because, you know, I was one of them.”
Aklilu was born in Ethiopia, where her mother owned a restaurant. She spent much of her life in Rome where she married and became pregnant with her son. But just weeks before she was due, she fled from her abusive husband to a women’s shelter, where she gave birth to her son in 1984.
The two moved to Oakland in 1995 into a public-housing project. She had no papers, car or money, but was soon offered a job by the owners of Salute, whom she impressed with her Italian after coming into the restaurant with a man one night. The job offer would be the first in a series of what Aklilu calls “blessings.”
At first, she was a hostess and made $7 an hour. She was good with people, and made her way up the ladder to assistant manager, and then manager. But when the owners put the restaurant up for sale in the early 2000s, she could not afford it.
It was then that a customer, a man who came into the restaurant nearly every day and was impressed with Aklilu’s customer service, offered to loan her the money. She bought the restaurant, and nearly 10 years later, business is going strong.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “Every day, when I wake up, somebody must slap me, I swear. Everything that comes to me, I can’t believe it. Because who am I?”
Aklilu paused, looked out the bay window, and pressed her palms around a steaming pint of tea. Her eyes filled with tears as she described the things she’s done since she became successful to try to give back to her community, including hosting dinners for Richmond girls who do well in school. She also finances tuition for some girls to attend Northern Lights School in Oakland, a private school that caters to kids who would not be able to attend private school otherwise.
For several years, she said, she has wanted to feed the needy, especially around the holidays. But it didn’t happen until October, when Aklilu and her staff were preparing for the Harmony Walk to End Hunger, an annual event hosted by the Greater Resource Interaction Agency in Richmond.
“[Menbere] said, ‘You know, I’ve been wanting to do this for a really long time, and maybe this is the year,” said Salute Manager Traci McWain.
Salute waiters signed up to work for free, and McWain reached out to individuals including Barbara Becnel of the Neighborhood House of North Richmond and Cheryl Maier from Opportunity West, which provides social and welfare services. Police Chief Chris Magnus and West Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia will participate as servers.
When they arrive, guests will be greeted outside by waiters with trays of bruschetta, polenta and other hors d’oeuvres. They’ll be seated in every room of the restaurant—including near fireplaces and ocean-front views—and will be served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with pumpkin soup or salad, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans.
“I can’t wait for them to sit down and have that view. I can’t wait for them to hear, ‘Maam, what can I give you; Sir, what can I bring you?’” she said. “Everybody deserves to feel that way every day, but at least on Thanksgiving Day.”
Jean-Yves Charon of Galaxy Desserts—a business that has received nationwide attention since Oprah Winfrey was turned onto his treats—will supply dessert.
All guests will leave with a goody bag, too, Aklilu said. Women will be sent home with lotions, children with toys, and men with hats and shirts donated from BoFlex inventor Dosho Shieferan.
What is Aklilu most looking forward to?
She paused and covered her face for a moment. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she looked out the window at the bay. Yachts lazily bobbed and the sound of squawking seagulls was faint.
Her response was simple.
“Seeing somebody smiling.”