Fifteen years ago, restaurateur Menbere Aklilu took over ownership of Salute e Vita Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in Richmond located in a restored Victorian with views out over the bay. An immigrant, and a survivor of domestic abuse, Aklilu, known as Menbe to her community, describes her life as one of fortune, despite its many hardships.
“I am living the American dream, to be honest with you,” she said.
As a young woman in the early 1980s, Menbe left her native Ethiopia for Italy with an Italian with whom she was romantically involved. The relationship turned abusive and, in 1984, when she was nine months pregnant and six days before her due date, she fled. She found herself living on the streets of Rome, then in a women’s shelter where she gave birth to her son, Christian. In 1995, Aklilu — a single mother without extended family, a job, or knowledge of the English language — moved to Oakland. Her eagerness to work and her fluency in Italian endeared her to Gino LaMotta, the former owner of Salute e Vita, who hired her as a hostess at a wage of $7 an hour.
Aklilu worked her way up to supervisor, then manager. When the restaurant was put up for sale in 2003, a customer — himself an immigrant — loaned her $500,000 to buy it.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would still be living paycheck to paycheck,” said Aklilu. “He believed in immigrant people.”
The two set up a plan for Aklilu to pay him back in five years. She did it in 11 months.
Having grown up in the hospitality industry (her mother ran a hotel and restaurant in her hometown of Gojjam, Ethiopia), Aklilu prefers the role of manager rather than chef.
“I love to feed people. I love to watch — Oh my god! I love to watch kids come into my restaurant and play with spaghetti and see their faces full of tomato sauce,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not just a restaurant. Salute is a home for everyone.”
Since taking over, Aklilu has brought a strong sense of charity to Salute. She has served more than 30,000 meals to the homeless through annual holiday dinners and other events. She fundraises for disaster relief, donates money and meals to Oakland’s Northern Light School, hosts monthly free etiquette classes at Salute for Bay Area schools, and has given more than $14,000 of her own money to charities both in the U.S. and abroad. She works with the Richmond Community Foundation, where she created a fund in her name to support survivors of domestic violence, those experiencing homelessness, low-income families and other vulnerable communities.
On May 23, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt issued a statement praising Aklilu’s involvement in the city and the world. “Menbe has not only become Richmond’s best-known restaurateur but is also Richmond’s best-known philanthropist, raising and donating hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of dollars and services.”
“There is huge, huge reason for me to give back,” said Aklilu, citing the many benefactors and opportunities that have helped her along in her own path to success. “In Ethiopia we don’t have a lot, but we give what we have,” she said. “We have nothing, but we give everything.”
“When I drive past the project houses, I don’t have bad memories from there. I have good memories. Those memories make me who I am now.”
Salute is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year, even on holidays. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Easter, Memorial Day, you name it,” said Aklilu. “This restaurant never, ever closed this past 15 years.”
But all that’s about to change. Aklilu’s own story of hard work, luck and success also includes a thread familiar to many Bay Area residents. After a long and difficult financial relationship with property owner Richard Poe of Virtual Development Corporation, Salute will serve its final meal and close for good on July 6.
Aklilu owns the business but not the property. In 2007, after five years as Salute owner, Virtual Development moved her lease off a long-term agreement. For the past 11 years she has run the restaurant on a month-to-month lease. “For 11 years, every day I wake up afraid that I don’t have a restaurant,” she said. She feared not just for herself but also, and especially, for her staff of 40. “Employees want security.”
In 2016, Virtual Development served Aklilu a 30-day notice to vacate. Community uproar and intervention from the mayor’s office convinced Poe to rescind the order and allow Salute to continue. But the final blow came earlier this year, when Virtual Development issued a statement to Aklilu insisting Salute close for structural repairs to the floor. “Which is a tactic to throw me out,” she said.
Although Virtual Development stated the closure would be temporary, according to Aklilu, construction and renovation projects are notorious for running both overtime and over budget. A closure of any length could have severe financial consequences for a restaurant already operating on a month-to-month basis. Not to mention, Virtual Development insists she pay for repairs, either up front or through an additional charge added to the terms of a new lease, one that would already double her existing rate, a rate which is itself double what it was when Aklilu took ownership of Salute.
“Fifteen years, more rent, on time, more rent, on time, more rent, on time. Here I am,” she said.
“I will be losing customers, employees, and then have to put in $100k for repairs on a month-to-month?” she said. “It’s too much.”
“For years, the Poe family has been charging Aklilu rent that is twice, or more, than comparable local market rent,” wrote Richmond Mayor Tom Butt in his recent May statement. “Instead of being remembered as the master developers of Marina Bay, the Poe family’s lasting legacy, unfortunately, will simply be putting one of Richmond’s most inspiring citizens out of business.”
Aklilu has decided to honor Salute with a two-day celebration, beginning July 5 and culminating in the restaurant’s closure on July 6. On both days, all meals will be provided free of charge. In lieu of payment, customers are encouraged to donate funds to the staff, what Aklilu describes as “an exit bonus” — something to set her employees up while they look for new jobs. “They make me a strong woman by giving the best service to the customer,” she said.
Saying goodbye to Salute doesn’t mean Aklilu is giving up on her mission of speaking up and giving back. “I am successful because I have a talent, because I follow the rules, because I work hard, and because I give back and I didn’t forget from where I came,” she said.
“We will see what will come. I’ve been in the worst, so something good will come.”