Chef Brenda Buenviaje has been serving up what she’s dubbed French Soul Food to the Bay Area for the last 15 years. During this time, she’s built up a mini-empire of three restaurants that serves her singular home cooking in the form of fluffy beignets stuffed with crawfish, crispy fried chicken, fried bologna sandwiches, and so much more. We sat down with Buenviaje to talk about her restaurants, the must-orders, the broader industry, and what the future holds for her.
Running a restaurant is difficult, obviously. But running three is quite the feat. How do you do it? Where do you spend most of your time these days, and how?
Let’s not forget I also have three kids! This is such a tricky question to answer because like my children, each restaurant is at a different point of development, so needs my attention differently. Also the constantly changing constraints due to COVID are honestly too many to list.
Brenda’s Oakland is only two-and-a-half years old, Meat & Three will be eight this year and French Soul Food will be 15. Thankfully for me, my team has either worked for me or has known me personally for decades. Most of my day-to-day tasks these days are done remotely.
Each restaurant is so different and unique from each other, but also similar too, with fairly large menus. This might be a difficult question, but what is your perfect order at each restaurant? What are the must order dishes in your eyes? And why?
Must haves that are available at all locations: All beignets, shrimp and grits, biscuits, fried chicken
French Soul Food: Muffaletta, oyster flight, New Orleans BBQ shrimp
Meat and Three: Johnnycakes, fried bologna sandwich, any ice-box pie special
Oakland: Messy mess breakfast sandwich, banana foster milkshake
Did the pandemic reveal any big A-HA moments to you, both personally and professionally with the restaurants? What did you learn or realize?
Not sure if it was totally A-HA but I was really blown away at how tough, flexible and resilient my core team is. I also realized how much I had taken for granted the success of the original location. It was such a blow to have to suddenly close after so many years of success, not knowing if we’d be back.
Did you have to make any massive pivots to make the restaurants and numbers work? How have you been able to keep afloat given everything?
Luckily, Oakland was only six months old when the pandemic hit. That concept was designed for fast-casual, and lended itself to takeout and delivery, which was helpful. It wasn’t profitable but it kept it going. Meat & Three was also takeout and delivery — it’s a locals spot.
We lost a lot of staff during shutdown. But Polk Street suffered the most — we were reliant on downtown tourism. And we didn’t really cultivate takeout and delivery there. But PPP money helped — I don’t know what I would’ve done.
Do you feel that the restaurants are back to normal at this point?
In general, I feel like we’re about 80% the way there. This summer will be really telling — it’ll show us how much people are moving about and traveling and eating on a leisurely basis. The numbers recently have felt pretty normal. Business wise, I’d say we’re 80 to 85% there.
The customers. The general eating public. It’s almost like some people have forgot how to eat out in a civilized manner. [laughs]
My restaurants are comfort food restaurants. So people always come in and order way too much food and share and take him leftovers. I haven’t seen a change in that at all. Thankfully.— Brenda Buenviaje
If there’s one thing you could change about the restaurant industry, what would it be?
I can’t speak to the entire industry, because there’s so many different types of restaurants. It’s always a good talking for politicians, but there needs to be more recourse and support for small business owners. For example, I don’t know a single restaurateur who hasn’t been sued. We all just roll over and pay the fees, because that’s what you do. There’s nothing you can do, despite how well-intentioned and fair we are — it doesn’t serve you.
There’s so much else, too. Being a business owner in the Tenderloin? We need safer streets.
I don’t really have an answer — I feel like everything I’m already doing to support my workers is working. My retention is high. I’m willing to be above the national standard for labor, if that means I can go to bed to night knowing that I’m taking care of these people who are taking care of me. But as far as the overall fix, I don’t know what the magic answer is.
Have you noticed any big change in the way people eat at your restaurants, in general?
We were all concerned that takeout and delivery would drop when restaurants reopened. That hasn’t happened. I don’t think that’s going to go away.
Eating in, my restaurants are comfort food restaurants. So people always come in and order way too much food and share and take him leftovers. I haven’t seen a change in that at all. Thankfully.
What would you like to see more of in food?
I’m Filipino Creole — I grew up cooking fusion cuisine. Back then it fell out of flavor, but the truth is, we’re living in globalization. Everything is fused now. At the time, I felt offended that fusion cuisine was a style or a trend. I would like to see more of a celebration of actual, genuine fusion cuisine. Not the stuff from the ’90s where white dudes from the kitchen were throwing sesame oil in everything. I’m talking about natural evolution of food that’s happening.
What does the future hold for Brenda’s?
As a chef and an artist, I am feeling unfilled lately in my current role basically as CEO. I am exploring ways to explore turning the flagship into a worker owned co-op, so I can feel good about relinquishing my responsibilities to those who have earned and deserved a piece of the pie.
Personally, I’d like to work on new restaurant concepts. I’m at a point where creatively I want to do more. I want to explore this idea of Filipino Creole cuisine as a concept. It always starts with ideas I want to see come to fruition.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar