Last year, the local food media was buzzing when news emerged that Rashad Armstead, the chef behind Oakland pop-up Crave BBQ, was opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the historic California Hotel in West Oakland. It was to be a permanent place for Armstead to serve his smoked meats and Southern-style sides that first got attention from his pop-ups at the Ashby flea market in Berkeley and at a gas station parking lot in West Oakland. But Armstead was also excited to partner with the hotel’s owner, non-profit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), which works to help low-income families and under-resourced communities. At the hotel, he planned to run Crave BBQ as a sort of incubator for young black entrepreneurs. He would train and employ local youth in food service, restaurant operation and management, so they could eventually run their own business one day. He was also working with non-profit Oakland Public Conservatory of Music to open a blues café at the hotel. But the ambitious multi-prong plan fell apart when he realized the money to make it happen wasn’t there.
It was going to cost about $300,000 for the build-out of the restaurant, and although EBALDC was going to take on a majority of the financing, Armstead was still unable to fund the remaining cost. Although he had already paid for permits out of his own pocket, he decided to “walk away before it was too late,” he said. The realization the restaurant wasn’t going to happen took him to a dark place.
“I wanted it so bad to happen,” Armstead said. “I saw myself going into a deep hole when I saw it wasn’t going to happen.”
Armstead was having panic attacks and his marriage of four years was starting to crumble. His anxiety wasn’t new, he had been suffering from depression for a few years, but living in “survival mode” just to get by meant not having the time, energy or awareness to deal with it. His “move move move” lifestyle was taking a major toll on his mental health until, he said, he turned to faith.
“I said to God, ‘You wouldn’t have given me all these talents for me not to use them. Let it play out however you want to do it, I’ll accept it,’” Armstead said. Self-reflection led to more hard choices, like realizing his marriage wasn’t working (He is currently in the process of getting divorced). But it also led him to a new venture that, while not what he had originally planned for, has promise to fulfill his dreams.
About three weeks ago, Armstead opened Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood, a quick-service take-out spot in North Oakland inside a former fried fish and burrito shop called Las Palmas on Market Street. Armstead said because the space was turn-key, he was able to get Grammie’s up and running quickly, but he calls it a “pop-up” since the storefront is still a work-in-progress. The Las Palmas sign is still up, and unless you walk by the restaurant, you could easily miss the paper signs and menu for Grammie’s taped up on the window. Neighbors still walk in asking for burritos, and that may continue until July 1, when Armstead aims for the restaurant to make its actual debut. By then, the space will have a fresh coat of paint and the bulletproof window at the order counter will come down. Family portraits will go up, as will a legit sign for Grammie’s outside. While in soft-open mode, Armstead is concentrating efforts on testing out the menu and recipes with the neighborhood.
Grammie’s doesn’t serve BBQ, instead it offers a menu of fried chicken and battered fish (catfish or rock cod), along with sides like potato salad, macaroni and cheese, Creole fried rice, collard greens and seasoned fries. There are also “Samiches” (what Armstead called sandwiches, as a kid) and salads topped with fried fish, shrimp or chicken; “Grammie Cakes,” cornbread cakes shaped and griddled like pancakes; and there will eventually be a menu of vegetarian and vegan options, like cauliflower fried “chicken” and tempeh fried “fish.”
Armstead was born in Mountain View and lived all over the Bay Area before his family settled in Modesto when he was in junior high. He got his start in the food industry when he was 16, as a dishwasher at a hospital cafeteria. He attended a six-month culinary school program at age 19 and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at an Asian-fusion restaurant. Although he had no background in that type of cuisine, after three weeks he was running the kitchen. Later, he moved back to the Bay Area. He worked at the Santa Rita jail as a cook, but quit because “it was difficult to see men that look like me that were treated like animals.” It wasn’t until 2014 that he was given an opportunity to find his voice as a chef. He was hired to cook for a Cal sorority, where he was given freedom to make creative, fresh foods. That was a turning point, which led him to start his own private catering company, Artistic Taste 7 in Berkeley, and eventually, Crave BBQ.
The dishes at Grammie’s are ones that Armstead has adapted from recipes passed down through his family, who have roots in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. His mother was an accomplished Southern cook and several other relatives have professional cooking backgrounds, but the family member who has been Armstead’s biggest inspiration is the namesake of his new business.
“Grammie” refers to Armstead’s great-grandmother, Sarah Rawls, a notable Bay Area restaurateur, most famous during the ’70s and ’80s. She owned a place in West Oakland known for its hot plates and egg sandwiches, and eventually opened multiple locations throughout the Bay Area. She also wrote cookbooks, hosted her own cooking show and starred in commercials with celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. Armstead felt a strong kinship with his great-grandma’s entrepreneurial spirit and hopes to “bring her back to life” with Grammie’s.
Armstead also hopes to bring to life his youth entrepreneurship program at Grammie’s, where he aims to work with groups like Civicorps to hire and train young people from the community. Currently, though, the business is a family-run operation, with Armstead’s younger brother Roman Armstead (19), his brother’s best friend Shawn Alderson (20) and his sisters helping him. In some ways, Roman and Shawn are the guinea pigs for his youth training program. Both have had no prior restaurant experience, but within the last two weeks, Armstead has taught them how to cook and serve all the menu items, ring up customers and take care of everyday operations. Eventually, he’ll pass the business along to them so he can move on, opening other Grammie’s locations in other areas. The plan is to make Grammie’s a franchise, with Armstead opening the fast-casual, to-go operation in black neighborhoods around the country, training youth from that particular community, who will eventually become the owner-operators.
Armstead purposefully chose this particular North Oakland location for the first Grammie’s because it’s in a historically black neighborhood, and when the previous business initially opened 35 years ago, it was owned by a black family.
“This neighborhood, it was filled with African American people. They had businesses here, they were homeowners and had careers,” he said. But things changed over the years, as resources to the neighborhood dried up, and most dramatically in the 1970s and ’80s, when crack hit the area. And now, as gentrification spreads farther and deeper into Oakland, fewer homes and businesses in the area are owned by black people. “In another five years, we might not be here at all.” Armstead wants to bring back black entrepreneurship to the neighborhood and be an inspiration for others who want to join him.
“When I see younger men come in, you can see it in their eyes, they’re inspired,” Armstead said about some of his young black customers. “The spirit is still here.”
But Armstead realizes there are many challenges that come with opening a business in a neighborhood that’s not a trendy food destination, where residents are mainly looking for value and familiarity when dining out. Grammie’s will depend mostly on word-of-mouth and Instagram to attract people in the neighborhood (and delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub and Caviar for those further out), but it will also have to gain the community’s trust with good food at accessible prices. During its soft opening, Grammie’s is charging $10-$15 for plates, $13 for sandwiches and $4 for each additional sides. Armstead said the prices may go up by a couple of dollars on July 1, grand opening day, but he wants to keep prices low enough for people in the area while being able to pay employees a living wage.
In the meantime, Armstead has other pots on the fire. Crave BBQ is not dead. He’s still offers catering through the brand, and he’s considering a couple of options for where to open a brick-and-mortar location in the East Bay. Armstead is still working with EBALDC and may even bring the Crave BBQ food truck to the California Hotel and help connect the group with other local chefs.
Taking after his media-savvy great-grandmother, Armstead isn’t shy in front of the camera. He’ll be making a couple of food-related shows in upcoming weeks: first, in mid-June, he’ll appear on season two, episode six of Thrillist’s Instachef series and in mid-July, on a television show he couldn’t name at the time. His hope is that with more exposure, will come more opportunities.
“I want to complete this mission, it’s that much more important to me. I’m standing on the backs of my ancestors, my aunts and uncles, my friends who are dead or in jail, those who are addicted to drugs, the kids in foster care, my grandmother. I’m fighting for them,” he said. “I’m not holding back anymore.”
Grammie’s soft-open hours are 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; noon to 6 p.m., Saturday; 1-6 p.m., Sunday. Its grand opening will be on July 1, when it will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily.