Santa Barbara restaurant drops name many considered racist
As America reckons with racism, the lone remaining restaurant of a chain that once stretched across the country is giving up its controversial name.
The Santa Barbara restaurant is Sambo’s, and “sambo” has been used as a racial slur for centuries.
Chad Stevens, whose grandfather founded the breakfast and lunch diner in 1957 and whose uncle oversaw the chain’s expansion to more than 1,100 franchises, owns the restaurant, which sits at the original location on West Cabrillo Boulevard.
“Our family has looked into our hearts and realized that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal. So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can,” Stevens said in a June 4 post announcing the name change on the brunch spot’s Facebook page.
By the time the restaurant changed its name, a petition calling for the switch had received nearly 3,000 signatures. Organizer Rashelle Monet wrote in the petition that “Sambo” was commonly used as “an archetypal degrading character in literature and minstrel shows.”
“Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing,” read a quote from historian Stanley Elkins shared on the petition.
“No one thought it was harmful … but there are some connotations where the name was used in a negative light. That was never our intention,” Stevens said, explaining that the name was a combination of the names of its two founders, his grandfather Sam Battistone and Battistone’s business partner Newell Bohnett.
Stevens said he had only rarely heard complaints about the name but acknowledged that it received criticism as his uncle and grandfather managed the chain, particularly as they expanded nationwide. The owner thinks it’s finally time to make the switch.
“I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution,” Stevens said, adding that there had recently been threats made of property damage to his restaurant.
Images from “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” an 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman in which an Indian boy outsmarts a pair of tigers and turns them into butter for pancakes, covered the inside of the eatery. Author Langston Hughes was among those who criticized the storybook, saying its illustrations displayed the dark-skinned main character in harmful stereotype.
Stevens said he decided to change the restaurant’s name after he and petition organizer Monet spoke last week.
“No one ever came to me before what’s going on in our country, and sat down and had a dialogue with me and said, ‘Hey, let’s look at this, what should we do?’” Stevens said.
After Stevens’ Facebook post announced the change, Monet organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe to help the restaurant rebrand, which raised $2,370 before Stevens, who said he appreciated the gesture, shared that he wouldn’t take the money.
“I think the money should go to the other people that are really hurt,” Stevens said, referring to businesses struggling during the pandemic and unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death. His restaurant employed 40 people before it closed for two months because of the coronavirus.
The comments on the restaurant’s post show a mix of reactions: praise for inclusive reflection, frustration with perceived political correctness, memories drenched in nostalgia like pancakes covered with syrup. Most customers have showed support, though, Stevens said.
The owner said one of the most reaffirming reactions came from the chain’s former president, his uncle Sam Battistone Jr., who supported the move “100%.”
“That felt really good,” Stevens said. “I’m here to come together, and if that means I have to change my business model, I hope something positive comes out of it.”
After making his decision on the name change, Stevens decided to swap in a temporary sign while a permanent name was being chosen. The temporary sign started with a peace symbol and ended with "& Love.” Although a photo was snapped and posted to Facebook, the lettering wouldn’t stay put, and he’s since covered it with trashbags. He hoped to get the sign in place this week.
“It’s what we are about: peace and love,” Stevens said.
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