It’s 1:13 a.m., and there is a half-empty glass of a Duckhorn Three Palms 2017 Merlot to my left. This scene seems familiar to me as my fingers are sporadically searching for keys to press into on the keyboard in front of me. I’m struggling to find a consistent rhythm to bring these writings to a close. Because my mind is like a fire hydrant, it’s hard to turn off my thoughts as they start flooding in once I’ve begun to extricate them.
This is Part Four of “Pure Fire,” a four-part series by Christopher Russell, the chef-owner of Red’s House in San Francisco.
When I was a little boy in New York City, the summers were so excruciatingly humid that we would open the fire hydrants and play in the street, as the cold water blasted against our skin, the cars paid extra attention to avoid us as we played in our own imaginary waterworlds. We have aspirations as children, as innocent as we may seem. We hold onto these aspirations until they no longer seem feasible but there is still hope, it’s faint like a weak pulse, but it remains embedded within us.
This is not a fairy tale. It never was and it definitely does not have a perfectly planned-out happy ending. Over the last few years, I was able to accommodate my mother for longer periods of time as my humble pop-ups turned into a full fledged business model. I found Red’s House a brick-and-mortar space, albeit in an impossible lease at 4 Embarcadero Center. But the reviews were in and it turns out that customers liked having the ability to visit us when they had the urge for some jerk chicken or spicy pepper prawns, instead of chasing us around the bay.
Things were good, until they weren’t and I found myself exiled to Daly City during the pandemic.
There’s a harshness still in the air left by the cruelest winter in modern history that we’ve managed to miraculously survive. The effects of this global pandemic have devastated the restaurant industry and I believe it is far from over, though there is a glimmer of hope as we begin to understand the invisible enemy.
I find myself in a constant state of worry. Worry for my family, friends that I have deemed reckless for seeing each other, my grandparents. And I worry about myself. I broke up with a boyfriend right before the pandemic started. Currently, I am alone and exploring what finding love in a pandemic will look like, all while trying to keep my business afloat. I’ve lost 15 of the 50 pounds that I gained during 2020 and I crave human interaction like a fresh baked pastry. My saving grace is a puppy I adopted for companionship. I named her Red because when we first met, she looked like a baby fox and had reddish brown fur. She gets me up in the morning and inspires me to go outside as I continue my struggle with depression and anxiety. I take it one day at a time and Red has been my rock.
Sometimes I go for endless drives around the city, into different neighborhoods and imagine Red’s House in one of these empty restaurant spaces. You would think that during a pandemic when there are “For Lease” signs on every commercial space in town that it would be easy to source one … but no.
The structural racism that we faced before the pandemic has been permanently uncovered and because people don’t need to pretend anymore, I feel like we are dealing with an unprecedented amount of inequity. It’s astonishing to see real agents squirm at the thought of trying to sell a Black-owned business to a landlord, thus taking over one of their crown jewels in San Francisco. I’m stuck because landlords want so much more in a COVID-19 landscape from a Black-owned business and are unwilling to budge on their stubbornness. Even with our proven track record, I feel that our skin color plays a major role in their decision. As the economy is on its deathbed, we are being offered spaces as long as we can pay exorbitant prices, six to 12 months up front, a deposit of 3x-7x rent, and key money. I understand the severity of the situation, but at least give us a chance to negotiate. Instead the first offer is usually the only and final offer.
I’ve always had this secret plan that if things got too much for me to handle in life that I would move to the middle of nowhere, a place where I could disappear and start a new life. If you’ve read this far, you must understand that I always pack up and run away whenever things become too hard for me to handle emotionally. The armor I’ve spent years building around myself has both been my safe place and my prison. The world can be an extremely cruel place; I want to protect myself from that.
The creation of something from nothing is the story of Red’s House, an idea that no one took seriously at first. Now, years later, Red’s House has become a survivor in a time when established restaurants and storied institutions are permanently closing all around us. It has taken years of work, sacrifice and pain. But when I read the reviews, and when I look into our customers’ faces as I hand them their food, the joy that they exude makes me know that I’m doing something that affects people’s lives in a positive way. Blood, sweat, burns, and many, many tears — it has been worth it!
Red’s House is continuing to serve an array of the most authentic Caribbean food you’ve ever tasted in the Bay Area. Please visit www.eatreds.com for all updates and to place an order for delivery or takeout.
We have also launched an online marketplace at www.redsyaad.com that ships sauces nationwide. There is also a GoFundMe that we started to keep Red’s house alive: Help Save Red’s House. We have plans to expand to a permanent storefront that will be able to accommodate guests, when (and if) that becomes possible in the near future. — C.R.