There’s a story in the Bible that goes something like this: an ailing woman who, after enduring chronic pain and suffering for 12 years, makes her way into a crowd where Jesus is. She reaches out and touches the hem of his garment and is instantly healed.
“And what else does a hem do? It holds the fabric together, it gathers it,” says Asia Smith, owner of The Hem Nutrition, who found inspiration in the Bible story for her business name.
Smith grew up in Seaside, a former military town with a legacy of racial diversity, and opened The Hem Nutrition on Broadway in December. “When you grow up here, you have friendships and experiences that are multi-ethnic. So there’s the belief that The Hem would be a space where people would gather, even if just for a moment, and be seen and known, where all people are welcomed.”
That was before the pandemic and rise of Black Lives Matter, but that guiding philosophy today feels more relevant than ever. In Seaside, there are a number of black-owned food establishments and restaurants that are setting up shop during these historic times.
The Hem Nutrition opened just six months ago, and now, per Covid-19 guidelines, staff wear masks and greet customers at the doorway to take orders. They offer a variety of nutrient-dense meal shakes complete with 24 grams of protein, and 21 vitamins and minerals. The flavors bring you back to simpler times of being a child, such as a cinnamon toast crunch or fruity pebbles (gluten-free). There are black, green and herbal teas, all under 15 calories, packed with antioxidants and energy boosters with flavors like peach, lemon and even Skittles. Add extra oomph with a tea bomb upgrade of vitamin B12 and ginseng for a boost of energy and mental focus.
Just down the street, Darryl Choates opened Deja Blue in March, just before the shutdown. “We were open for only two weeks before we had to close due to Covid,” he says.
The former Seaside City Council member and owner of Ord Market in Marina remembers when Broadway was just a dry patch of tumbleweeds. He’s long been eager to bring life to an old haunt that was formerly a bar called The Dunes, transforming it into a restaurant and comedy club with live music, including jazz on Wednesdays and blues on Fridays. The menu, created by Executive Chef Jefferey Walker, offers classics like cioppino and rib-eye steak. There is a nod to soul food, with shrimp and grits, baby back ribs and pecan praline bread pudding. The Deja Blue Burger is slathered generously with blue cheese and applewood bacon, with a side of tempura-battered fried onion rings and avocado. Yes, fried avocado – which offers both silky-smooth and crunchy textures, scrumptiously combined.
Karen Anne Murray is a customer at Deja Blue, and is also another black food entrepreneur who owns Eddison & Melrose, an English tea shop in Pacific Grove. She’s noticed the facelift on Broadway and likes where it’s headed.
“Broadway is definitely coming to life. It will be a thriving area,” she says. “It’s nice that they’ve spruced it up, and I don’t think they have over-gentrified it.”
One key ingredient for avoiding gentrification is keeping locals involved and engaged in their community, Murray and Choates say.
“Corporate America isn’t over here,” Choates says. “I’m a firm believer that you have to jump in and do the homework, put your heart and time into it.”
Just down the street on Del Monte, Michelle Brooks is putting her heart, time and soul into creating a successful business at Michelle’s Soul Food, stationed out of the Retired Men’s Social Club. Every morning she wakes up early enough to start prepping the food at 6am, then offers lunch at noon. Prior to the pandemic, she was only operating on Thursday and Friday, but when the bar shut down, the kitchen opened up. So now she’s cooking southern favorites every Wednesday-Saturday. There’s fried chicken wings, collard greens and smoky bacon, cheesy peppery mac and cheese, lightly fried catfish and tilapia (there is a baked option, too). The crowd favorite is boiled oxtail with her secret spices. She goes through 40 to 80 pounds of oxtail a day.
“Somebody’s telling somebody about it,” Brooks says with a laugh. She’s seen more younger customers in the past few weeks, a welcome surprise to her customer base, as it’s become a spot for Black Lives Matter protesters to eat.
“They like soul food, food that will make them feel full,” she says. “They are trying to find some guidance and unity out there. I tell them, just stay positive.”