Michauxnee Olier, the founder of soul food catering company The Busy Wife, is everywhere at once inside her Jack London Square semi-permanent pop-up restaurant. You’ll see her at the door, saying hello to the guests, then spy her again as she directs the traffic in the kitchen. Then she’s sending you a taste of maple lemonade, a smooth, non-alcoholic drink that tricks you into believing that there’s a hint of whiskey in the glass. There isn’t, you’re just buzzing on the food and the experience. “This is a love vibe,” Olier told Nosh. “We’re just trying to bring back love to our community and give us a grown up space to do it in.”
The Busy Wife
44 Webster Street (in Jack London Square), Oakland
Olier, an Oakland native and self-taught caterer, launched her business in 2017. But feeding the community is part of her heritage: Her grandparents were the original owners of East Oakland’s iconic soul food restaurant, The Barn. Another relative, Will Joseph, owned Oakland’s Save Yourself Market, and made headlines in the 1960s after an armed confrontation with an alleged robber. These days, both of Olier’s sons work with her at her business. “The love that came from [my family] has always been a part of my foundation and so I feed people,” said Olier. “And why shouldn’t we? I feed people for a living but I feed people because people need to eat.”
Right now, she’s feeding people from a well-known space, serving Creole and Southern classics like fried Brussels sprouts drizzled with smoked molasses, jambalaya skewers and chicken, shrimp and beef hot links over collard greens. The 44 Webster St. spot was most recently home to Dyafa, the Palestinian home cooking collaboration between Reem Assil (Reem’s) and chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson. Assil broke with Patterson in 2019, as have many other local chefs who collaborated with Patterson, but the restaurant remained open as part of Patterson’s Alta Restaurant Group until March 2020.
That’s when Dyafa temporarily shut its doors in reaction to the pandemic. A few months later, in June, Alta left Olier Dyafa’s kitchen for her catering business, and to work with World Central Kitchen’s efforts to feed communities while keeping food service workers employed. Olier credits WCK with saving her business as well as many others, and says that her work with them meant she didn’t need to borrow money from the government to pay her staff.
When in-person dining resumed in the Bay Area, Olier started serving sit-down diners in-house, with dishes like her lush and rich smoked gouda shrimp and crab creole pasta, a creamy penne creation with blackened shrimp, spinach and crab meat. While mainstays like the Busy Wife’s vegetarian oyster mushroom po boy “thang” (chicken fried mushrooms with the house recipe pink lemonade vinaigrette slaw and smoked buffalo aioli) will always be on offer, its other menu items rotate throughout the week. The latest dishes on offer can be found on The Busy Wife’s Instagram and Facebook pages.
Olier also set aside some of the restaurant as retail space for other Black-owned businesses, including Vallejo-based Brutha’s Honey and Milton Johnson’s Philty Milty barbecue sauce. As reopening continued, the restaurant started to also host private events and parties, as well as game nights, teacher appreciation brunches and spoken word performances. “Some nights we’ll have people here on a Friday night where the music is good to them and the food is good and will ask what time the club starts,” Olier said. “We have to tell them it’s not a club, it’s a restaurant.”
Olier’s dream is to occupy the space permanently, transforming the former Dyafa into a restaurant called Michauxnee’s Creole Soul House. She says that she’s had continued communication with Patterson about her use of the space, as well as discussions with Jack London Square’s property management team on what it would take for her to fully move into the space. (Nosh contacted Patterson for comment regarding The Busy Wife, but as of publication time he has not responded.)
“It’s hard,” Olier said of the insecurity of working out of someone else’s business. “There’s a lot more money involved than people tend to realize when something like this is being started from scratch.”
Right now, Olier said, she’s devoted any revenue she’s brought in toward paying her eight employees, and though she has plans for a fundraising effort, she hasn’t launched any drives quite yet. “I don’t have any financial backing,” Olier said. “I get stressed out when no one is coming in because I have to buy everything for us to be open and pay staff to stand around.”
One of the reasons for those slow nights might be The Busy Wife’s lack of an obvious presence. All the signage on the street and side of the building is for the long-closed Dyafa, and that’s not something she’s allowed to change. With a location on the back of the pier and behind another bar, many Jack London Square-goers don’t realize there’s a new restaurant in the space. If not for the ’90s R&B music from one of The Busy Wife’s DJs, Olier’s clientele may not know she’s there at all. “We’re a destination place. From any direction you wouldn’t know where it’s at.”
If Olier fully moves into the space, you soon might hear more than ’90s R&B from the restaurant. “Ideally, I want to turn the DJ booth into a small stage so that we can bring back the jazz, live musicians and spoken word,” Olier said, detailing a vision for a home not yet her own. “I want this to be a stopping ground for up and coming artists that are doing their thing.”
As a board member of Oakland community gardening effort Sankofa Gardens, Olier also has a long-term goal is to teach youth farm to table skills, a likely result of challenges she experienced growing up. “Food insecurity — we lived it,” Olier said of her East Bay upbringing. “Nothing that happened to anyone in East Oakland or West Oakland missed me and my family.” That’s why, Olier said, she feels it’s her responsibility to feed the unhoused people who live in the area. “Our family was torn apart by drugs and mental health issues, too,” Olier said. “That’s why I try to support my community as much as I can, because I have cousins out there.”
The Busy Wife is located on the back of the pier in Jack London Square at 44 Webster St. in Oakland. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 5 p.m.-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday brunch hours starting at 10 a.m. during the square’s farmers market. The DJ is outside on the weekends, Olier says, so if you’re struggling to find The Busy Wife, just follow the music.