Black businesses in Berkeley reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted them

Photo of Black businesses in Berkeley
Gisselle Reyes/Staff
Nuttin’ Butter Cookies owner Whitney Singletary reflects on how the pandemic has affected her. Cali Alley and Pinky and Red’s have also been impacted by COVID-19.

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Nearly a year after the country first shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, owners of three Black businesses in Berkeley reflected on how they have been impacted.

Berkeley businesses have had to adhere to social distancing requirements and several statewide shelter-in-place orders since last March, causing many to experience financial difficulty, extra shifts to pick up and for some, closure. Three Black business owners in Berkeley discussed how their businesses have been faring during the pandemic and the importance of supporting Black businesses like their own.

“Before you support people and support Black and minority-owned businesses, you have to be aware about who they are and really push yourself to find out more about their stories,” said Dov Sims, owner of Cali Alley. “Equality is something that Black people are still fighting for, whether you’re a business owner or not, and whether we’re in the pandemic or not. Awareness is crucial.”

Cali Alley, 1012 Grayson St.

Cali Alley is a Black-owned walk-up window restaurant in West Berkeley that serves burgers, barbeque and an assortment of artisan comfort foods, according to Sims. He said the restaurant has been “treading water” ever since he opened it last April — a decision he made after all orders for his catering company, California Rose, were canceled due to the pandemic.

While most restaurants take several months to prepare to open, Sims had no choice but to open Cali Alley without recipes, a menu or structure. The first three months of opening involved trying to operate while building the restaurant from the ground up, causing Sims to work 70 hours a week.

After George Floyd’s death last May, Sims said he came to a realization about being a Black-owned business.

“When George Floyd passed, all of a sudden Cali Alley garnered this amassed attention because we’re Black-owned,” Sims said. “I’ve owned my other business for 20 years and being Black-owned didn’t really matter before. It was hard knowing that it took George Floyd’s death to open the eyes of America and for Black-owned businesses to finally matter to people.”

Support from the neighborhood and community around Cali Alley is what helped it remain open, according to Sim. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and offers delivery or pick-up orders, he added.

Nuttin’ Butter Cookies, 1371 Dwight Way

Nuttin’ Butter Cookies is a Black-owned cottage food business that specializes in 12 different nut-based cookies, according to owner Whitney Singletary. Although the cookies were originally sold at a storefront on San Pablo Avenue, Singletary started baking them in her home kitchen and selling them from her driveway after the pandemic began.

Singletary said the local community has allowed her business to stay afloat, with some neighbors even gathering ingredients for her when grocery stores limited how many products she could buy last March. Being a Black business during the pandemic, however, remains a challenge, she added.

“I feel that the systemic racism that we have been challenging in this country was really implemented during the timeframe of trying to give us some type of relief in this pandemic,” Singeltary said. “None of the Black-owned businesses that I know of received any funding during COVID-19, including myself. It seems like there will always be extra obstacles when you’re Black.”

Nuttin’ Butter Cookies is open Monday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. for delivery and curbside pick-up orders, according to Singletary.

Pinky and Red’s, 2495 Bancroft Way

Bernadine “Pinky” Sewell, the owner of Pinky and Red’s, said the pandemic was “devastating” for her and her business.

Pinky and Red’s is a Black-owned restaurant in UC Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union that specializes in chicken sandwiches and other comfort food, according to Sewell. She said the statewide shelter-in-place orders and the closure of the UC Berkeley campus led the restaurant to fully close March 16, leaving her in financial trouble that has persisted for nearly a year now.

Sewell added that she was diagnosed with colon cancer in August, which was both a personal and financial struggle. Two GoFundMe campaigns have been recently set up for her, with one to cover her medical and living expenses and another to support the reopening of Pinky and Red’s.

“We would love to be out there on the frontline serving the community, but we have to abide by the campus and state rules and prioritize the safety of students,” Sewell said. “We want Berkeley to know that our hearts are still in our community, but we still need the financial support to get back up and going.”

Contact Annika Kim Constantino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.