After hard times, restaurant owner warms hearts in Richmond with love
on December 3, 2015
Menbere Aklilu has come a long way. From a struggling single mother, she is now a restaurant owner in Richmond, after moving from her native Ethiopia and a stretch of time in Italy.
Aklilu hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner at her restaurant, Salute E Vita, where she just served a sit-down dinner for more than a thousand Bay Area homeless people. She has also begun holding a four-course Mother’s Day brunch for young single mothers. She helps Richmond and Oakland students pay school tuition.
It’s an expression of gratitude for her adopted hometown.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Aklilu said, “The community, the people. It’s the most important thing.”
Aklilu arrived in the U.S. from Rome in 1995. First working as a hostess at Salute E Vita, she quickly rose to the rank of manager. When the opportunity surfaced in 2002 for Aklilu to purchase the restaurant she was able to make the leap from manager to owner—thanks to help from a long-term customer. After 13 years Aklilu is running a thriving restaurant and using her resources to improve the lives of those in need.
Her Thanksgiving meal includes pristine white linen tablecloths, beautiful flower centerpieces, and individual table service. None of that is for her everyday costumers. This is a special dinner for homeless vets and low-income families from around the Bay Area. Aklilu arranges for transportation from the BART station and homeless shelters.
She said the food is not the main point. Rather, it’s how the guests are treated, and how they are served “with love, respect and dignity.”
“I want to give them an experience they will never forget,” she said.
Along with dinner she provides flu shots and goodie bags for each guest with essentials like toothbrushes and warm coats.
The Mother’s Day brunch is for young single mothers in Richmond. After a limo ride to the restaurant, they got a beautiful four-course meal and a gift. Aklilu even provided child care so each woman could have a relaxing stress-free day.
“[For] at least one day they must feel special,” Aklilu said.
She also supports students at the Northern Lights school in Oakland and the Girls Academy in Richmond. She has been helping students get through these schools for almost 10 years and maintains a deep connection with those she has sponsored.
Aklilu seems to put love and energy into everything she does. Her restaurant is no exception.
“It’s a very fast-paced environment,” says Karina Chavarin, a hostess and supervisor at Salute, “but Menbere is just an amazing woman.”
Even outsiders feel as though they’ve arrived home at Salute E Vita. The place has a soft peach-colored interior, warm-toned accents and beautiful wooden staircase. Everyone can expect a warm greeting, whether from an employee or the owner.
She had to fight some battles to make it all happen.
At the age of 10, Aklilu lost her mother, murdered in front of her in a hotel they owned and lived in. She was then raised by her older brother in the capital city Addis Abba. After high school she attended acting school, ultimately becoming an actress.
It was as an actress that she met her future husband, a fellow actor who was also a director and producer. She moved with him to Rome where they both continued their careers and were married. But living happily ever after was not in the cards.
Her husband became abusive, and Aklilu, pregnant with her son, recalls having to run in order to escape violence. She gave birth in a Rome women’s shelter where she and the infant lived for three months while she looked for work.
Eventually she earned enough to move into her own place.
“I knew that I had to be strong for me and for him,” Aklilu said. “I have to provide everything for me and for him.”
After leaving the shelter she entered the food industry, learning everything she could about Italian cuisine before moving at last to the Bay Area.
She is getting help from the Richmond Rotary Club to return to the small Ethiopian city where she was raised, Gojjam, to see her mother’s hotel for the first time in 44 years.
Not since the night of her mother’s murder has she been back to the hotel. Now, she intends to transform it into a school for under-privileged girls in her village.
“I’m going back to change the past, change the bad memory for good,” Aklilu said, discussing her last memories of the hotel and her plans for its future. “Now I want to change it for good.”
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