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 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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Mas Gaviota Jun 04, 2020 06:36 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I have a simple solution. Chad should buy Roy's Jolly Tiger sign and that should be the new name. That would honor the history of the chain and put to rest the fantasy that there was no historical objections to the Sambo's name.

SoapBox Jun 04, 2020 06:31 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

For simple visual proof of why this is offensive, everyone should just Google images for the word Sambo. Post back here If you are not offended by the everything you see. (except for those mixed martial arts fans) Those associations are enough to end this discussion. Save your nostalgia for those quieter times when your insular privilege wasn't such a bad thing.

RHS Jun 04, 2020 06:57 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Really, if we post scurrilous images of Caucasians distributed by the Japanese during WWII would that mean that we just ignore the historical cause of this stuff? Is there any evidence that the restaurant chain wanted to adopt the awful caricatures? Was the original story about racism? Let's not even ask.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 06:24 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Kudos to the owners. Having a plaque made with the history would be appropriate. Is the place an historic landmark? It could be, when they change the name. We moved here in 1978. Saw that name on our first night here. I have never eaten there. I never said anything to anyone. If they change the name, I will go in. And so will my kids.....and my grandkids.

FineFabrics Jun 04, 2020 06:01 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I was born in 1957. Same year and month, maybe day that the first Sambos Restaurant was founded on Cabrillo. We moved from Detroit to California in 1960. For the next decade, our family traversed route 66 annually to visit family and buy a new car - seriously. I learned to swim at a motel in Yuma, learned about Pine Trees in Flagstaff, silver and turquoise from an Indian merchant in Albuquerque, hail in Texas and tornados in Oklahoma. Springfield was a treat because it was the home President Lincoln. Chicago was where you felt home, the Great Lakes effect and there was a restaurant bridge over the freeway announcing we no longer on Route 66, and on the home stretch to Motor City. In 1965, I navigated for my eldest sister, an art student at UCLA who declared her independence by the two of us making the trip together, alone. I remember my very cool sun hat flying out the window and my sister crying when a pigeon lodged into the front grill of her Ford Falcon. Every morning we ate pancake breakfasts at Sambos Restaurants. It was part of the adventure. It was a treat! It is part of our history. I also had a blue covered copy of the book. I never identified Sambo as of a particular race or color. To me the title and text designation as “black” was simply descriptive. I was racially color blind. I still am. What I remember clearly was Sambo, what impressed me about the book was Sambo was a hero. He saved his community and did it with intelligence, leadership and guile. Granted I have not looked at the book in probably 40 years, but if this is my memory, impression from childhood memories. If there was subliminal racism there, it got lost on me. Why the hell does anyone want to erase this from anyone’s history! My history, the Battistone family history, the history of firsts in Santa Barbara is as important as everyone elses. Chad, please do not let current events lead you to deny your family legacy. Sam Battistone was not a plantation owner. Das, if you truly believe in this position, that we should deny our connection, the Santa Barbara community from the Battistone family philanthropy. Then, let’s go for the Court House: A paradigm of Spanish Colonialism in whose rooms Santa Barbara’s incarcerated receive their sentences.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 11:50 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Finefabrics, I tried reading this but fell a sleep after page 79. Sambo has had a negative connotation for hundreds of years. The story itself is harmless. I'm also really tired of Boomers saying they are colorblind to somehow distance themselves from reality.

FineFabrics Jun 04, 2020 08:36 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

My memories are my memories, and they are not attached to the name, but it is the brand of the restaurant independently and for good and clear reason independent of racism. We are a brand society today, and to demand, threaten and collectively target the restaurant to change its brand identity is destructive. I prefer constructive change.

Alexblue Jun 04, 2020 08:15 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Fine, it's a great sentiment, but very few human beings are "racially color blind". Things that you took for granted when you were young, that were essentially invisible to you, caused millions of people great pain, but I don't think anyone is trying to erase this history--Sambo has been known as primarily a racial stereotype for well on fifty or sixty years now. That history is well established and won't go away because the owner of the family renames it.

Seabird Jun 04, 2020 08:01 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

@Finefabrics, this is a lovely collection of memories and I highly recommend you pen a memoir, or some short-form prose. Once it's completed, have your grandchildren place it in your coffin, because that's where it belongs. Your fond memories of a name that causes SO many others aside from you pain are yours, not ours. And they are no more important (arguably, less important) than the collective memory of pain and oppression that affect many. But tell us some more about your cool sun hat.

Ahchooo Jun 04, 2020 07:54 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Fine fabrics, no one will take away your memories. No one is erasing history. All the other Sambo’s restaurants are gone, but your and my happy memories remain. It’s a small thing for people like you and me to let go of the name. The unfair, unkind treatment of Black people in our society is not a trivial detail. If a significant number of people are hurt by the word Sambo, I can let it go.

FineFabrics Jun 04, 2020 07:02 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Once again, you don't know me, my post route 66 with family adventures, history and actions in the community, who I listen to or what messages I discount. What I will tell you, leveraging for a name change to a historical landmark, obviating the history of others is not the route to the change you are looking to make, if I'm reading you correctly.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 06:54 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

FINE - uh, we ALL know everything you said, and that's what I was responding to. Your words, your stories were posted here BY YOU and I still say, you're not listening to those in pain. Until you are, stop pretending to care.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 06:23 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

FINEFABRICS - " I was racially color blind. I still am." Fine, but you're not listening to the cries for help by other races. Equally importantly, you and the other "non racists" here are missing the point drastically. No one said the business or the owners were racists, just the name of the place. Your memories are cute, but Sambo wasn't just a children's book (I read the same one at my Grandparents' house many times and loved the "Tiger butter" part), it is a NAME that was used throughout our history to ridicule and insult African Americans. That name, not your memories, not the story, is OFFENSIVE to many people. Why don't you just listen to them? You shut them out by crying foul over a simple name change. Hear their words, their feelings. Maybe if more people LISTENED to others, we wouldn't be here with all this!

Ahchooo Jun 04, 2020 05:59 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Any six letter name will work. Replace or scramble the current letters. Tiger’s. Sammy’s. Yummy’s. Then put up a plaque explaining the history. People will still want to eat diner food on Cabrillo. Sambo’s will live in history. I remember the cute drawings of a little boy. The tigers make him give them his clothes. Then they chase each other around around a palm tree until they turn to butter. The tigers turned to butter! For my pancakes! Memorialize the joy of my youth and move on.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 05:10 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

According to the article, the owner already decided to change the name. So, all your crying and stories of you "friends not complaining"are falling on deaf ears. It is moot. The name is changing. If you don't like it, don't go. Or better yet, go out and protest it so we can all see who you are!

Lucky 777 Jun 04, 2020 04:56 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

The present owner, grandson inheritor, has had his sign and building vandalized multiple times by the "concerned citizens" who are "offended" by the name. If he bows to the pressure now it is going to be because he fears his building will be torched in the name of black power. Where does it all end? Books in the schools are now censored to remove "offending" words, or forbidden entirely. These impingements on freedom do not quell racism, any more than rioting is protest.

bornatcottageho... Jun 04, 2020 05:33 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I know my intelligence is debatable LOL and I'm subpar at best, but you stated: Change the name and everyone (well except the racists like you) are happy! Where does that statement indicate PROBABLY? Right, it does not. FACT. And here in lies the part of the problem. People PUSHING their ONE SIDED agenda. Good luck. So many Chiefs these days, they all know what's best, don't they. Enjoy.

a-1594607049 Jun 04, 2020 05:23 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

BORN - no, I'm saying you're probably a racist if you cry and moan this much about changing a name of a restaurant and call someone "shameful" for trying to make a change. "Poser?" What are you, 11 years old?

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-1594607049 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-1594607049 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-1594607049 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-1594607049 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-1594607049 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?


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