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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ZeroHawk Jun 04, 2020 02:25 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

@ 434 and just about everyone else. How does a simple name of a restaurant, a name that was created by taking parts of the two last names of the original owers, become offensive? Don't like it? Don't eat there. It's not like they will go out of business because you don't. I have been going there since I was about 5. That was 1975. Frankly most of you just look for reasons to cry foul and complain about something that isn't there. Or make things up to further stoke a flame. So now you set your sights on a historic and locally owned restaurant? LOL Band wagon jumping much? Where were you and your voice before the protests? Why didn't you shout out loud and protest in front of my friends restaurant until now, if it had "bothered" you so much? Band wagon jumers....just like when an musician dies, suddenly everyone is a big fan. So over this stupidity in this town. Go find a better hobby.

LCP112233 Jun 04, 2020 02:08 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

It took so long because it is a brand associated with good food. A lot of business comes from from returning customers who have a name associated with a great meal. I agree, it's about time for a change of name for this restaurant. But, that would be the only reason I can think of why it has not been changed.

bosco Jun 04, 2020 01:41 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Pretty sad it took this long, and a Pandemic, and Nationwide Protests. Honestly, this says a lot about the owner. I get that it is costly, but this should have been a no-brainer 50 years ago. I have seen black tourists on the street taking photos of the restaurant and laughing. Basically saying, "Can you believe this still exists?". Regardless of origin, that name and the sign has been a stain on Santa Barbara's waterfront.

sacjon Jun 04, 2020 02:52 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Zero - and another thing - since it really" doesn't matter" to you what the name is, why are you commenting? Maybe, it DOES matter to you. Maybe being forced to confront the feelings of those other than yourself is awkward and uncomfortable. If you truly thought it "doesn't matter" what the name is, you'd be quiet. But you're not, because it DOES matter to you in some way. Go ahead and say it, own it. Don't pretend to be impartial or try to excuse your opposition to a name change because one black "friend" told you they don't care. Own it.

ZeroHawk Jun 04, 2020 02:27 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

434 again eh? like i said before, where you before this? were you out in front with your bullhorn and signs? no. you're just an opportunist. let them be, they harm no one aside of giving people a full belly of good food. My friend is a manager there and is black. Think he gives a damn? Nope. Because it's a non issue until wannabe's like yourself start barking.

sacjon Jun 04, 2020 02:49 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

ZERO - ummmm, ....... it matters a LOT if they're called Sambos apparently. That's actually the single, solitary, exclusive, only, point of this whole article. It clearly matters to a LOT of people. Just because you, a non-black person (and your "black friend") aren't offended by this name, doesn't mean that a crap ton of others (whose racial background and history are strongly affected by the name) have no right to be upset. Get over yourself.

ZeroHawk Jun 04, 2020 02:28 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Sacjon, i pose the same question to YOU. What does it matter if they are called Pink Balls, or Pig Fart Express, or Sambos? It doesn't. Leave it alone. there are far far more important things to harp about and champion for.

Thomas John Jun 04, 2020 01:05 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Interesting - from Wikipedia "The once-popular Sambo's restaurant chain used the Helen Bannerman images to promote and decorate their restaurants, although the restaurants were originally named after the chain's co-owners, Samuel Battistone and Newell Bohnett.[5] The word and the choice of a black icon by the chain had such negative connotations that, despite the actual origin of the chain's name, they were contributing factors in the chain's demise in the early 1980s.[6][better source needed]"

RHS Jun 04, 2020 01:00 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I know I can be dense but the Sambo's book I read as a child struck me then as a praise of the cleverness of the young person who outsmarted the tigers. I know that these things are perverted but I am not clear that the original story was meant in a racist way.

macpuzl Jun 04, 2020 01:59 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

And the swastika was originally a Buddhist and Native American symbol, but acquired a lot of evil baggage in its later usage. The same can be said about the term Sambo. You can't ignore all those connotations just because they don't personally offend you.

CoralineJones Jun 04, 2020 01:50 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Actually the story was about a dark skinned Indian boy who outsmarted a tiger. The original author probably saw the racism/discrmination in India against darker skinned indians - it still exists today [when I was there, the women would use skin lighteners and avoid the sun at all costs - and Indian friends of mine confirmed this bias]. So it probably was meant as a way to uplift the darker skinned Indians out of that stereotype as darker skin implied a poor outside laborer. It got perverted when someone in this country changed the story.

Chip of SB Jun 04, 2020 12:57 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

This is a great start, but we have a long way to go. There are so many names in this country that are hurtful. We can't change the whole country, but we can make a difference locally and help start a movement. A great place to start would be the name of our city. Santa Barbara is a tribute to European colonialism, to Christianity, and to the oppression of the native population. We should start a movement to rename our city to something that doesn't glorify that cruel and terrible period of history. I also think it is distasteful and offensive to name prominent streets after the colonists who inflicted so much harm to the native peoples who once inhabited this land. How can we continue to allow the oceanfront of our beautiful town to bear the name of Juan Cabrillo? Many streets are also named after the families who descended from the soldiers who founded the presidio. Talk about a monument to oppression and injustice. The names Carrillo, Cota, De La Guerra, Gutierrez, and Ortega need to go!

Chip of SB Jun 04, 2020 01:37 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I agree, APS is another totally unacceptable name. We should start a committee to evaluate all the street and place names in town. The committee could develop standards for what is considered offensive, identify all offensive street and place names, and then develop new names to replace them all. Together we can cleanse or city these hurtful names that evoke the terrible destruction and oppression brought to this land by the Europeans.

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