Restaurant Diaries San Francisco
On San Francisco’s Black-Owned Restaurants, COVID-19, and the First American Pandemic
Nikki Cooper is the second-generation owner of San Francisco’s first legacy business, Two Jack’s Nik’s Place, a family-owned staple of the Lower Haight and the greater San Francisco black community since 1977. Mrs. Cooper is a graduate of St. Ignatius College Preparatory, the University of California at Davis, a book author, and the recipient of San Francisco’s NAACP 2019 Entrepreneurial Award.
The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported in January 2020. Over the next two months, the insatiable, predatory nature of this novel virus was allowed to prey freely on the respiratory tracts of countless innocent Americans until it had reached community transmission. On March 16, London Breed — the first black woman to be elected mayor in San Francisco — instituted a shelter in place order, the first mayor to do so for an entire city in the United States.
It was a Monday, my last day off before having to return to work. I was at home with my two teens, whose schools had recently closed out of an abundance of caution, when my husband called me from work.
“I just heard London is shutting down the city because of the virus. I’m going to stop by Costco to pick up food for the house.”
“What does that mean — shut down the city?” I asked.
“I think it means all businesses will have to shut down for at least the next two weeks and everyone will have to stay home.”
My mind went into negotiation mode. Shutting down our restaurants, which have been cornerstones in San Francisco’s black community for over 42 years, for two weeks was less than ideal, but manageable. And at this point, it was almost expected. During the previous week, the world watched in real time its own episode of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” as the NBA, MLB and Disneyland all shut down indefinitely due to the virus. I knew it was just a matter of time before we would have to consider doing the same thing.
I immediately called my parents, who own and operate our Bayview location, and told them the news. My mother’s hesitancy about shutting down was noticeable, though I couldn’t understand it at the time. After we ended our conversation, she called back within five minutes telling me that essential businesses, which included restaurants, would be allowed to serve take out and delivery — therefore, their location would remain open.
Fear and anger quickly consumed me as I imagined the destruction this virus would leave behind on their 70-plus-year-old black bodies. I tried negotiating with them. I desperately wanted to avoid the front lines of this new war this country carelessly found itself in.
History has painfully revealed that our bodies are always offered up as front line sacrifices to meaningless wars. My parents empathized but remained resolute: Two Jack’s would remain open.
Although I did not realize it at the time, it was that very moment I witnessed my own living legends live out what Nip meant when he said “ten toes down” and “the marathon continues.” After fully feeling my fear and anger, I surrendered to their wisdom. The next day, I began putting chairs on top of the tables in the restaurant, converting the welcoming energy that I had worked so hard to reclaim from the pernicious influences of the crack epidemic, into our new business model: takeout only.
The following weeks and months revealed frightening aspects of the behemoth COVID-19, particularly within the black community. Everyday, news crawls recycled the number of increasing infections, deaths, and shuttering businesses across the country and globe. Coincidently, during this time, two black men and a black woman were violently murdered by white men, five of them being police officers.
However, it was also during this time that the faith my parents typified became palpable. It was as strong, as beautiful and as black as Aretha’s voice singing “Mary Don’t You Weep.” It was solidified by surviving the first American pandemic of self-hatred that suffused the collective unconsciousness and manifested into police brutality, the pipeline to prison, and now, COVID-19.
For us, the new normal of social distancing is less new and more normal due to the mandatory shelter in place order that black people have had to live under in order to survive the brutality and systemic oppression that has been exacted on us with such deadly precision that it has been programmed into our psyche and allowed to expand over generations of black families since our arrival in 1619. The perpetuation of these physical and spiritual transgressions against black Americans — as well as the denial of the resulting generational trauma — is a form of self-hatred. In the words of our beloved Celie from “The Color Purple”: “Everything you done to me, you already done to yourself.”
The longevity of my family’s legacy is a direct result of social distancing from society’s expectations of who we are supposed to be.
My parents instilled in me early on that being driven by the acceptance and elusive accolades of a system that is programmed to turn me against myself is insanity. Being driven by love for humanity holds real value. Having businesses within our own community pushes us to evolve in our authentic power and bring light to our hidden figures.
Two Jack’s, like so many other black-owned restaurants, has been historically excluded from San Francisco’s “foodie” culture. Restaurants that attempt to appropriate the soul in our food are mainstays on the “Best Restaurants” lists while 20- to 40-year-old restaurants remain quarantined from such praise, or no longer exist.
Yet, it’s the darkness of isolation that allows the seeds of generational wisdom and strength to grow, blessing us with the opportunity to feed the unprotected, the neglected, and the ignored. So many of our dishes are seeped with the sacredness of African spirituals that our ancestors sang when preparing them. It is this generational spiritual renaissance that has allowed us to survive the intersectional oppression of two deadly pandemics that are — hopefully — shifting humanity to fully realize that no society can last forever unless it is built upon truth and justice for all.
Nikki Cooper is the second-generation owner of San Francisco’s first legacy business, Two Jack’s Nik’s Place, a family-owned staple of the Lower Haight and the greater San Francisco black community since 1977. Two Jack’s Nik’s Place is open for takeout.