Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

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Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott
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Sambo's on Cabrillo Blvd in Santa Barbara | Robert Young/Flickr/Creative Commons License

By Lauren Bray, edhat staff

Local restaurant Sambo's plans to change its name and rebrand following calls to boycott for its racist name.

Santa Barbara resident Rashelle Monet started a petition on change.org earlier this week to change the name of the historic restaurant due to its racist roots. 

In American history, the term "Sambo" has been used as an identifier of a Black man, specifically in a degrading context in literature and minstrel shows.

“Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing,” historian Stanley Elkins wrote. “His behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration.” Education specialist Jessie Birtha explained that “the end man in the minstrel show, the stupid one who was the butt of all the jokes, was Sambo.” [KCET]

Illustration from "The Story of Little Black Sambo" (Wikimedia Commons)

The restaurant chain started in Santa Barbara in 1957 by Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett. They combined Battistone’s first name with the first two letters of Bohnett’s last name, and called the diner Sambo’s opening June 17 on beachfront Cabrillo Boulevard. They offered bottomless, inexpensive cups of coffee for 10 cents and a full breakfast for $1.25. 

On the walls were seven paintings of the story of “Little Black Sambo,” a retelling of the popular children’s book Little Black Sambo that was written by Helen Bannermen, a Scottish woman living in India. The book was published in America in 1900. With each reprinting, illustrations became more caricatured and offensive with the story being reset in Africa or the American South, reports KCET.

There were 40 Sambo’s Pancake Houses by 1965, during the civil rights movement, with handmade murals on the walls and Sambo dolls sold in every location, even Sambo masks given to each child. At its height, Sambo's had 1,117 locations in 47 states. 

As the chain grew so did objections. Civil rights leaders and city councils began to object as protests and lawsuits in the 1970s challenged the name. The owners pushed back contending it's based on the founder's names and only a small portion of people have an issue with it, but they also changed the name of some restaurants to “No Place Like Sam’s” and “Jolly Tiger.”

Jolly Tiger, Sambo's
Jolly Tiger sign inside Roy's restaurant on Carrillo Street | Thomas Hawk​/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Financial issues and company restructuring led to eventual bankruptcy that forced the chain to sell or close all locations, except Santa Barbara where it still stands today under the original "Sambo's" brand.

In 2014, Battistone's heir and Sambo's owner Chad Stevens told The Daily Beast, "We do get the occasional complaint. They want us to know the controversy of the name. And yet for every complaint, there are about 1,000 people who say, ‘Wow, I can't believe it’s still here’ — or ‘Open another one in our town.’"

Monet's petition to change the name garnered over 2,500 signatures as of Thursday with the plan to protest as she reached out to local officials.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams reached out to Monet stating, "Few people have ever accused me of being capable of being silent, but I accept your challenge. The name has always bothered me, despite knowing that the origins had to do with the owner's nickname. It still strikes me as being a bizarre anachronism that is hurtful because of the history of that term."

On Thursday morning, Monet took to Facebook to announce Sambo's owner had reached out and wants to change the name. Sambo's then took to their own Facebook page to make an official announcement stating they will be changing the name of the restaurant and while the future name is uncertain, it will not be Sambo's.

"Our family has looked into our hearts and realize that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal. So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can. We will block out our sign with a message of peace and love as soon as possible and we are looking to work with the community to determine how we go forward. Please join us in this message of peace and love. 
Also please know we do not tolerate racism or violence. We are committed to being part of a long-term solution. And we ask our customers and neighbors to join us in that pledge," the restaurant stated.

Monet additionally started a fundraising page to help the restaurant rebrand. Within a few hours of posting it had raised over $1,700. 

"I also got a call from the owner of the restaurant and he has decided to rebrand! Due to Covid-19, the restaurant has already been suffering and I DON'T want to see it suffer more. He has at least $20,000 in branded inventory as well as an estimated $15,000 in cost to rebrand the restaurant! HE SHOULD NOT HAVE TO TAKE A FINANCIAL HIT FOR STEPPING UP AND DOING THE RIGHT THING!  If 3,500 people donate $10 we can all get through this and inspire change together! Here is the link to the GoFundMe account," she wrote.

One of the leaders of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter responded to the fundraising effort to help Sambo's rebrand saying the effort to rebrand is applauded but the community should not raise money for it.

"Sambo's needs to rebrand but they need to do that on their own dime," said Simone Ruskamp in an online video message. "Sambo's changed their name before and then they changed it back... they are committed to dehumanizing Black people. We will not pay them to do the right thing."

Ruskamp suggested for those who would like to help, to understand who is involved in the specific action, and if it is supported by the Black community. She urged allies to join a student-lead protest demanding racial justice that will take place at 12:30 p.m. near Stearns Wharf on Sunday, June 7, with a march at 2:00 p.m.

Several hours after this article went live, Monet updated her post to state the fundraising account has been removed and shared a screenshot of a response from Sambo's. 

"A group under the leadership of Rashelle Monet have kindly started a gofundme page to pay for the rebranding of the store. We did not ask Rashelle to do so, nor will we take any of the funds. We suggest Rashelle determine where those funds can be used for [the] good of our community," the post read.

The fundraising page was deactivated after reaching $2,570.


[Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a response by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and Sambo's Restaurant]

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bornatcottageho... Jun 04, 2020 04:37 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Sambos has (non hostile) occupied that location for decades. It's just as much a fixture on Cabrillo as any other hotel down there. To see some young gal sway the owners to change the name is shameful! It's a name based on the founders. Businesses need to stand firm. If she's so amazing, she should start her own restaurant. I mean, should I as be offended by Farmer BOY!? Harrys? (might mean she's hairy), Natural Cafe (does that mean they don't wash the veggies), Casa Blanca (it's not actually a white house).

a-1591314199 Jun 04, 2020 04:43 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

BORN - like most of the rest of white people here, you've missed the point. Just because it has been here "for decades" doesn't mean squat. The name is offensive, not the business. It is offensive to black people. It is "shameful" to oppose the name change for your reasons.

a-1591311337 Jun 04, 2020 03:55 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Glad to see so much support for those to keep the Sambo's name. I'll soon be opening a restaurant titled "Micks & Dagos" and I'm so happy to see my new customer base is supportive. We'll have paintings on the wall of drunk white people fighting and harming others. It'll be great, see you there!

a-1591332733 Jun 04, 2020 09:52 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

And if there is such a restaurant/bar, I'd bet that it would be very popular! In time what was once offensive, Mick, Dago... becomes acceptable depending on the context and the speaker.

Minibeast Jun 04, 2020 03:47 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

For Pete's sake. Why go down this slippery slope? What's next? Is someone going to come to my house and demand that I burn my copies of Little Black Sambo? (Mustn't tell anyone I have a collection of Sambo's coffee wooden nickels and a vintage Sambo's menu. )Is eBay going to ban selling Little Black Sambo books on its site? (793 copies for sale at this moment.) ----------Racist or a part of our history? When I was young there were three Sambo's restaurants in Santa Barbara. Sam Battistone = Sambo's. The Battistone family was well-respected and gave much back to our community. For all those ignoramuses out there: Little Black Sambo was a child in INDIA. Not an African black child. No tigers in Africa. Stamping out racism in USA: is the USA going to ban all Br'er Rabbit books, tossing them into a pile and lighting them on fire like those other EVIL banned books and rock 'n roll/Beatles/Disco records? What about Dr. Seuss' book "If I Ran the Zoo?" Shall we demand that the title be changed, all vintage copies be destroyed and the men black men portrayed barefoot and in grass skirts be changed to white men in pith helmets? This bizarre idea that somehow Santa Barbara is "helping" combat racism by changing the name of one of our historic restaurants is just plain myopic and ridiculous. I hope this idea is axed, pronto. ---------------First things first, though. Enough about APS and Cabrillo Blvd. That street name "Indio Muerto" really has to go. /s

Alexblue Jun 04, 2020 08:22 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Minibeast--who are you calling ignorant? You don't understand that portraying the Indian child as a classically racist "pickaninny" caricature is exactly why the whole thing is clearly racist? It's the notion that all those "wogs" are interchangeable savages.

Why do people like you get so caught up in an all or nothing fantasy that changing the name of the restaurant means that Antifa will be kicking down your door to seize your racist memorabilia? Grow up.

SoapBox Jun 04, 2020 04:12 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I want to say you lost me at "For Pete's sake." But I thought, "Why not go ahead and take a ride down this slippery slope (oh, yes there it is) of spewing a bunch of irrelevant facts that simply reveal that you did not read the article and/or have no critical thinking on the issues it presents." Relax, you can keep your spoons and books, or go ahead and sell them on eBay. A lot of serious curators are putting together collections that illustrate and educate future generations on the the history of racism in our country.

REX OF SB Jun 04, 2020 03:41 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Political correctness has hit a new low with this. As Chip of SB says further downthread, (sarcastically? I'm not sure), perhaps it's time to consider renaming a LOT of offensive local street and place names while we're at it. Start with APS. Father Serra was reportedly NOT a nice man to the local Indians. Also, the name "Santa Barbara" absolutely must go. The Roman Catholic church was responsible for a huge amount of suffering by the indigenous people, and I'm offended that this lovely town carries the name of one of its saints. I'll suggest Dolphin City or maybe Chaseville, to honor Pearl Chase. We certainly don't want to offend anyone.

PitMix Jun 04, 2020 04:25 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

So what's your point? Because a lot of other bad things happened, we shouldn't address THIS bad thing? One thing at a time, please. But if you want to lead the effort on those other things, I fully support you. I am sure this is not your intent, though. Your intent is to preserve the status quo.

a-1591309802 Jun 04, 2020 03:30 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Can just ONE person tell us why we should NOT change the name? Why? And no, "because it doesn't matter" is not an answer. What adverse affect will it have on you or anyone you know if a restaurant that most of you admittedly don't frequent changes it's name?

Alexblue Jun 04, 2020 04:14 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Come on, that restaurant will have no problem getting customers in the door. It's not like there's a huge national fan base clamoring to eat at Sambos--people go there because of the location.

In fact we don't go there because of the shitty, racist heritage of the place. They go through with this, we will give it a shot.

a-1591310957 Jun 04, 2020 03:49 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Fernald - it "can," but in a case like this, where a well known chain with a controversial name changes that name, it's going to be just fine. Tourists don't come to SB to dine at Sambo's. Locals who know it will still go, even it the name isn't offensive. It will be big news (as it has in the past) and everyone will know what happened. Yeah, if this wasn't such a big issue, people might not know and then I can see business having to re-advertise, etc., but not here. So what is the REAL reason?

JustAguy Jun 04, 2020 03:13 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Had breakfast there 2 years ago. A guy in our group wanted an apple juice, .... it was nearly 5 dollars. When he asked for a refill they wanted another 5. That location had people out on the street waiting for a table every morning.....I’m not sure they need the money for a name change. There are many people all around you that need the help more. .....And the name was insulting for a long time before now.

jak Jun 05, 2020 08:50 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Justaguy, the last gas I bought before leaving California was $4.95 a gallon. A week later once my car was delivered and I used up half the tank I bought gas in North Carolina ( a state with a rather high gas tax) for $1.98. Same grade of gas from the exact same Valero refinery in Bakersfield by the way. Five bucks for a glass of juice? Outrageous! And quintessentially California.

a-1591309213 Jun 04, 2020 03:20 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

JUSTAGUY - you ADMIT the name was insulting. So why not change it? Just because it has been insulting "for a long time before now," doesn't mean it shouldn't be addressed. In fact, that it has been offensive for so long is even more reason to change it. How is this even an issue? If the name bothers so many people, for so long, just change the damn name!

sacjon Jun 04, 2020 03:13 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

ALL OF YOU - if the name truly doesn't matter to you, then changing it should not be a problem. It clearly bothers many many people. So, if you're all being truthful in your opposition, then it won't matter one tiny little bit if they change the name. It WILL matter though, to so many others. Again, unless you're really just a closet racist, it won't matter if they change the name, except to those who are offended by it. Don't worry, I doubt they'll change it to "Cracker McWhitey's" or something, but if they do, you're free (and encouraged) to scream for change. Until then, simmer down or own your opinions.

Ryan93105 Jun 04, 2020 03:03 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

People live where they can afford. If I"m wrong, and there are instances of a black or mexican family attempting to buy a home in samarkand, or hope ranch, and being turned away due to the fact that they're not white (or white-ish as your stats suggest hispanics to be), that would be a horrible thing to be exposed in our city. Please, share any incidents where this has occurred, it might help us all better understand that to many, the color of our money simply isn't enough.

DBD Jun 04, 2020 09:01 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

There were 2 houses on my street that recently sold. I had absolutely zero idea who was moving in until i saw them unloading the Uhaul. Do you know how much work it would take to get in deep with the local real estate agents, research all the potential buyers, reach out to all lenders, build a strong relationship with them, and then influence who they let buy the home and move in? That is insanity.

a-1591308723 Jun 04, 2020 03:12 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

RYAN: Why can only whites afford to live in Hope Ranch, Montecito, the Riviera, etc.? Have you asked yourself that question? Is it a sign of a bigger problem/discrimination? Do the ppl who live there not want them there? Do they not want to live there? It seems strange considering there are many very successful and wealthy minorities including black folks in LA yet only the whites seem to come here. What is that all about?

Ryan93105 Jun 04, 2020 03:05 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I goofed, this was supposed to be a reply to CORALINEJONES 2:33PM comment. "Most live in what many "whites" here consider undesirable and/or dangerous neighborhoods. SB is full of hypocrites. Black boxes on FB and holding signs doesn't cut it folks."

running_mike Jun 04, 2020 02:59 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

GROW UP people. Seriously, change the name because of riots? (Which are being paid to happen). When is the last complaint you heard about the name Sambo's? I've been here since it first opened and have never had anyone say they don't like the name or refuse to eat there because of it. Geez - what is the world coming to?

Chip of SB Jun 04, 2020 04:59 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Yes, all the rioting and violence is a result of white supremacists infiltrating otherwise peaceful and non-violent protests. ANTIFA has absolutely nothing to do with any of the violence and destruction that is occurring. ANTIFA is a peaceful organization that promotes change through exclusively non-violent means. No, ANTIFA had nothing to do with the violence, its all those white supremacists who are to blame...

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