Owners of Ba-Bite Mica Talmor and Robert Gott feel strongly that their restaurant should be a safe place for all. (Anna Mindess)
They’ve won accolades for their silken hummus and rainbow of organic salads, but for the owners of Oakland’s Ba-Bite, the most precious thing the almost two-year old restaurant can display right now may be the Sanctuary Restaurant poster on their front door. (While “Sanctuary Restaurant” is not a legal designation, its slogan, "a place at the table for everyone" signifies a growing movement for inclusion, diversity and dignity).
Ba-Bite is Hebrew for “at home.” Even though most of Mica Talmor and Robert Gott’s employees don’t speak Hebrew, (besides English, they speak Spanish, Maya, and Arabic) they completely understand the concept. The majority of them -- like most food service workers in the Bay Area -- are immigrants. After walking across deserts at night, being shortchanged or abused in other restaurants where they could not complain, working at Ba-Bite feels like they have found a family.
Russell Chable manages the kitchen at Ba-Bite and is responsible for set up, prepping, and cooking. He grew up in a tiny town in Mexico’s Yucatan. When he was 18, he set off alone on a journey to a new land. The oldest of 5 brothers, he was determined to make enough money to send to his parents so they could build a proper house of concrete, instead of the rickety wooden structure where they all lived. He accomplished that goal after three years working double shifts in Thai, American and Louisiana restaurants. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to his lead position in Ba-Bite.
After eight years away from home, Russell missed his mom. Sure, he would talk to her on the phone every week, but he wanted to see her face. So this determined young man decided to build his parents a cell tower so that he could FaceTime with his mom. Six months ago, he made contact with a man back in Mexico who outlined what would be needed: laptops, cables and a cell tower. Russell had his uncle check out the man and then sent money. Now he uses FaceTime to talk to his mom every week, and his parents have a small business renting out computer and internet time.
But given the recent actions of the new administration, Russell is scared and worried. He doesn’t feel welcome anymore. “When I walk on the street, I never know who is watching.” He has been working for Talmor and Gott for three years and feels like he has found another family at Ba-Bite. “Everyone cares about each other. The owners talk nicely to us. That is a different experience from the other places I worked. I feel so lucky. My message to other immigrants is ‘If you get the opportunity to come here, use it well.’”
Co-owner Mica Talmor was born in Israel and has tried to create a family feeling among her workers. “The day after the election was hard for all of us,” she says. “The workers were frightened. They have hard lives. We want to give them a place to work that’s nice, clean, happy and safe.”
"What do I tell my 90-year old Holocaust survivor grandmother who lives in Israel about what's going on in this country with the current wave of hate crimes, threats and attacks against Jewish institutions? We have collective memory. Closing the door on refugees reminds me of family members who were detained as they left Europe for Israel after World War ll. Their boats were stopped in Cypress and they were put in refugee camps.”
Fatima Abudamos is from Jordan and works as cashier. She also holds the distinction as Ba-Bite's best falafel shaper. As she stuffs the green balls with sheep’s milk feta, she says, “This is an amazing place, just like a family. I’ve worked here almost two years. Mica is not like a boss, she’s more like a friend. She doesn’t scream if you make a mistake; she explains things. I feel safe here; it’s my second family.”
Ironically, Fatima previously worked in another Middle Eastern Restaurant, but one owned by her uncle, where she did not feel appreciated. “Here, they thank me. They are nice and respectful. And,” she adds, “I love the food here; it’s organic and delicious.” Fatima’s father had lived in America previously and described it to his family before they moved here five years ago. “He told us it’s very clean. He explained about the lifestyle. You have to learn to smile at people and not stare at anyone too long. He also taught us that all people are human: white, black, Jewish.”
Gott points to the sign that states, “We stand with Our Muslim, Arab and Immigrant Neighbors.” We have gotten more pushback on this one than the Sanctuary sign. But the majority of customers have been extremely supportive. Some even apologized to one of our employees who wore a hijab, for the actions of the new administration. They hugged her, saying, ‘that doesn't represent us’".
His wife adds, “You only hate someone you’ve never met. The first time I met a Palestinian was here. My husband’s family was from Oregon. Then they moved to Idaho. I was the first Jew they had ever met.” Commenting on the tense developments that seem to be getting worse every day, she says, "If I wanted to live in a hateful society where half the people are treated unequally, I could have stayed in Israel."
Talmor and Gott are no strangers to the food service business. A baker and a pastry chef who met in culinary school in 1998, they have operated Savoy Events, a high-end catering company for more than a dozen years.
Not one to mince words, Talmor states, “It’s actually hard to hire Americans, because they generally don’t work as fast and they daydream. Probably they were coddled by their helicopter parents, ‘Oh, good job. You tied your shoes.’ The immigrants, who often grew up in large families, took on responsibilities from an early age, helping their families with laundry, cooking, taking care of younger siblings, all before they were 14. They had the personality, the drive and physical ability to walk across the desert for a better future. They have come here for the American Dream, to make a better life. And now they are excellent workers.”
“We pay all of our workers well,” says Gott. “Partly because we know how expensive it is to live here. My experience is that more often than not, immigrants are working multiple jobs or longer hours, and forgo taking time off at all costs, as they want to or need to make money. On the other side of the coin, most American workers I have hired over the years are much more willing to miss work for personal reasons. It could be that they don't need the money, that they have busier personal lives or that they are not as invested in the businesses that they work for."
“I understand why some people don’t want open borders,” Talmor says. “I can relate. I am a supporter of immigration reform and I think that if it wasn’t such a polarizing issue easily manipulated by our politicians, we could have a reasonable system that addresses our labor needs and the lives and dignity of immigrant workers. Like for example, in Canada.”
Kasandra Molina is 23 years old and has worked at Ba-Bite almost two years. She is a food runner and cleans up tables. She came from Guadalajara, Mexico with her mother, aunt and cousins when she was 7 years old. She remembers walking in the cold, sleeping in a hotel with a bunch of strangers, waiting for the “coyote” to tell them it’s time. They were picked up by immigration authorities twice, put in chilly cells without any blankets. When they finally made it, her father was waiting in a car. They came to Oakland. She started in a bilingual school in 4th grade. “But then we had to move and the next school was only in English," she says. "The teacher was mean and always mad at me. She didn’t speak any Spanish, but the other students helped me and eventually I learned.“
“When I heard about the Dream Act, we went to meetings to find out about it and met with a lawyer. I had to show proof that I was here for 5 years, so we showed diplomas from school and medical records. Finally, about three years ago, I got my Social Security number and a work permit.” Kasandra is now going to college to become an RN. “I always liked medicine,” she says. “I’ve seen many babies born. It’s so amazing. And I always translate for my family in the ER.”
“The new president scares me. [Although the DACA program is safe right now] I’m worried. Seems like he can do whatever he wants. He changes his mind from one day to another. He has our number, and our address. I spent most of my childhood here. If we have to go back to Mexico, there’s nothing there, no house to live in," she says. “Mica and Robert understand. This space here doesn’t feel like a workplace, it feels like home. We all get along. They care about our opinions and feelings. They don’t treat us just as employees; it’s more like a family.”
“This restaurant is my home and my family,” says Gott. “It just happens that most of my family are immigrants. We want to be a safe place and that’s why we joined Sanctuary Restaurants.”
Gott also helped out a longtime employee from El Salvador whose injury from stepping on a landmine never healed properly. “We gave him time off from work and money so that he could finally have the surgery he needed,” he says. “We wanted him to be here.”
“What will we do if ICE comes?” Talmor asks herself. ”We are one. If they come for one, they come for all. If you let one group be persecuted, it’s just a matter of time until they come for us all. It’s an erosion of values when the values are what we stand for. We will close the restaurant on May 1 so we can all go to the Day without Immigrants Demonstration in San Francisco together.”