Richmond's mayor is strongly backing a waterfront restaurateur facing eviction, saying that the property owner is trying to force her out as an act of spite against the city after losing two ballot measures in June, including one seeking voter approval for a new development project.
According to Mayor Tom Butt, the Penterra Company served a 30-day notice to vacate to Salute e Vita Ristorante, a popular Italian restaurant owned by Menbere Aklilu, an Ethiopian woman who has been widely recognized for her charity work and community service.
The Penterra Company is associated with Richard Poe, a Florida-based developer who only mustered 34 percent approval when he took a plan before voters to build a 59-unit residential property on land he owns on the city's waterfront.
Butt, along with City Councilwoman Gayle McLaughin, fought the measure, calling it an attempt to bypass the city's normal environmental review and public planning processes and push through a project that was contrary to the city's general plan.
On Monday, Butt accused Poe of trying to evict the restaurant as an act of spite and retaliation against the city for the June failure of that measure, along with another measure he put on the ballot seeking to reduce the city manager's salary.
"Spite is not a new motivation for Poe, whose Measure O to dramatically reduce the Richmond City Manager's compensation had no compelling objective other than spite and retaliation," Butt said.
Butt planned a news conference Tuesday morning to rally support for the restaurant, and it drew scores of community members.
Restaurant owner Aklilu, known in the community as "Menbe," has been renowned for her charity work and her personal story of overcoming homelessness and abuse to become a successful businesswoman.
"I put my heart and soul into this restaurant," Aklilu said.
Among her accolades, she was the Contra Costa Business Woman of the Year in 2009, received the Jefferson Award in 2015 and was nominated for the Women's Hall of Fame by state Sen. Loni Hancock this year.
In a 2013 commencement address at Holy Names University in Oakland, she recounted her turbulent early life in Ethiopia and Italy. Her mother, also a restaurant owner, was shot dead in front of her when she was 11 years old.
"I saw the blood, I saw the fight, I saw all the drama," she said.
After she was raised in orphanages and by her brother and sister, she moved to Italy with the dream of becoming an actress. But she ended up in an abusive marriage and, pregnant with her first son, she fled to a women's shelter, where she met Mother Teresa shortly after giving birth.
Her community work includes hosting annual Thanksgiving dinners for homeless families, Mother's Day brunches for single mothers and donating to the Richmond Rescue Shelter, the East Bay Center for Performing Arts and the Family Justice Center.
"They are waiting, they are excited to come again, to be served in our restaurant," Aklilu said.
Hilton Ham, the building's contractor, however, claimed that the building and its plumbing haven't been properly maintained.
"The men's restroom toilet has been leaking for years, there's human waste underneath the restaurant," Ham said. "There's a pipe in the kitchen that's been leaking for years."
For her part, building owner Jacqueline Poe — Richard Poe's mother — told NBC Bay Area that she has gone the "extra mile" for Aklilu over the years, allowing her to rent the building below market rate. She also reiterated Ham's complaints.
"My sole concern is protecting the building I love," she said. "I want it to be there for a long time."
Stressing that her decision to evict Salute has nothing to do with her son's developmental plans, Poe said she is simply worried that the building has become a health hazard.
Calling the situation "unfortunate," Poe said, however, that she is willing to negotiate with Aklilu. "I'm very open," she said.
In response, Aklilu said that Salute passed a health inspection last week with flying colors. Officials concluded the complaint was invalid, she said.
On Tuesday, Aklilu, who is an immigrant who was once homeless herself, said she refuses to give up on her workers, the community or her own dream.
"All I can say is one way or another, we're going to fix it," she said. "I will cook breakfast, lunch, dinner tomorrow again. I will cook."