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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bumblebee Jun 05, 2020 03:40 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

2:53 : Thank you for helping me understand. In the original book, there is a Indian boy named Sambo in a story set in India. The book is then published in America. The illustrations morph Sambo and his family into African Americans that are horribly depicted. The name is now hated. Or is it the depiction that is so hated? But what if all the editions had been illustrated with an Indian (from India) theme?

sacjon Jun 05, 2020 03:21 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

BUMBLEBEE - jayzus.... you're not getting it are you? No one is offended by the book. The offense that African Americans have been saying for years they are feeling is that the NAME Sambo is offensive as it has been used for a LONG time as a derogatory name for black people. How hard is this to understand? Not the book, not the restaurant, not the owners, not your memories, the NAME is offensive, regardless of the literary and artistic differences between a British and American version of a book that degrades African Americans.

bumblebee Jun 05, 2020 03:02 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Sacjon-Sadly, once the book was published in the US, the illustrations morphed from an Indian theme to derogatory images of African Americans. Those ugly representations don't change the fact that the book was about a clever Indian boy that outsmarts the vain tigers.

a-1594606764 Jun 05, 2020 02:53 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

BUMBLEBEE: "horribly offensive" - there, you said it. Now maybe you understand why African Americans are a little miffed by the name, and now more so, by the stubborn refusal of people like many here to accept that some folks are offended and want our society to change away from accepting "horribly offensive" names as just "fun" or part of "their memories." Time to change folks, you can go kicking and screaming into the future or you can grow up and accept other's deep rooted feelings.

bumblebee Jun 05, 2020 02:46 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

MumboJumbo . Very clever. Feel free to read the text yourself. The text is about a Indian boy and is set in India. How many tigers live in the wilds of the United States? It is the American illustrations in the American versions of the book that are so horribly offensive.

sacjon Jun 05, 2020 02:32 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

ZERO - Nope, not the speaker, just trying to help people listen to others and try to empathize with their feelings. Are you the speaker for ALL white people now? I know you are very proud of your cute remarks, but they make you sound childish and ill-informed.

sacjon Jun 05, 2020 11:12 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Hey STEVE O - I don't doubt your not offended my the name, in fact, neither am I, but that's not the point. The name is highly offensive to all African Americans apparently, so why not just to the minimum HUMAN thing and change the name? It won't hurt you, it won't erase your memories of the place, the food will be the same, everyone will still know where it is, the only thing it won't still do is offend a large group of our fellow human beings. It's really not so hard to do the right thing, unless you have no interest in hearing the voices of people who have been oppressed and discriminated against for hundreds of years in this country.

Luvaduck Jun 05, 2020 08:10 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

No problem with changing a restaurant's name, but when they do those people-in-the-street interviews, it's amazing what people don't know. Given the public's historical, geographical and literary knowledge base, I wonder what percentage of Americans under about 60 have even heard of the book "Little Black Sambo". I can understand why some find the name offensive; I find "Hooters" both obscene and offensive.

Mas Gaviota Jun 05, 2020 05:31 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Except for the fact that black people have been called Sambos for over two centuries. For the last time, the book came way after the racial epithet was coined. People have been complaining about this name for fifty freaking years. Many of the comments here are proof positive of the naivete of much of this community.

SoapBox Jun 05, 2020 07:39 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Anyone still defending the name is clearly in denial about the overt and subtle systemic racism the has become part of the fabric of our society. This was a racist trope before the restaurant was named and the owners knew full well when they chose the name it that it was a dogwhistle as well as a convenient portmanteu. And with the wink of an eye, generations have attached fond memories to a brand that was designed to perpetuate racism masquerading as a charming children's story. I also loved the book as a child, but then I grew up and began to see past the fairy tale. The fond memory that I will take to my grave is the day this brand finally gave up the ghost.

SoapBox Jun 05, 2020 08:21 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

oops. Anyone alive in 1957 knew the word Sambo was used as a slur against people of color. I heard it all the time growing up in the 60s. I am not accusing patrons of being racist. I am accusing them of ignoring the racist history of the name in favor of the delicious muffins.

oops Jun 05, 2020 07:03 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

What a shame that Sambo's feels such hate that it feels pressure to change its sign. There is no malice in the name of their restaurant, this "implied racism" has to stop! The SB community owes it to Sambo's to stand up for them - keep your name.

Alexblue Jun 05, 2020 10:00 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

OOPS--come on, seriously, how can you possibly say there is no malice in the name Sambos. Have you read anything, anything at all on the history of the term and what it means to so many people. Okay, sure, let's say the owners of the restaurant had no intent to identify with the racist history of the name, that they were completely ignorant of it. Well, guess what, people brought it up with them over decades--decades, and they still stuck with it. Now, if I accidentally name my business with a word that has been used to denigrate millions of people over hundreds of years, and I did it accidentally, mind you...if people were to bring it up and educate me on that, I would say, wow, thank you, I literally had no idea and I would change it. Do you not get that?

ChemicalSuperFreak Jun 04, 2020 11:42 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” ― George Orwell, 1984

Alexblue Jun 05, 2020 10:01 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Oh, yeah, exactly--that's exactly what's happening. Great comparison, scientist. Now please try and point to all all the efforts to scrub the history of Sambos from the internet and all existing documents. Oh, but you say, it's a slippery slope. If this happens THEN what? Re-education camps! Grow up.

Shasta Guy Jun 04, 2020 11:19 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

My parents took us to Sambos for breakfast many times up in our town Northern California. I thought the murals on the walls were interesting, and I had no concept of anything as culturally insensitive. I was just an elementary school kid who wanted too much syrup on my pancakes. The one in Redding just faded away until I came to SB and I saw the lone one remaining near the harbor. I’ve never gone. I just wonder what we see now as normal and acceptable will be considered as vile and offensive 40 years from now.

Shasta Guy Jun 06, 2020 08:24 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

CSF: An excellent resource for starters is a book by Steve Lewis titled “Climbing Mt. Shasta, Route 1 Avalanche Gulch”. I’d loan you my copy since I doubt it’s available in this are. It sounds like you have some mountaineering experience. Mt. Shasta is not to be trifled with as people die every year attempting to summit. In general you set up a basecamp at Lake Helen at 10,000’. We tend to acclimate a full 24 hrs. You get an alpine start between 2-3am. If you have not made the summit by 9am, it’s best to descend to avoid the afternoon rock fall from the cliffs on both sides of avalanche gulch. It’s best to talk in person about this. No offense, but Your boot and crampon set up sounds totally inadequate for Shasta to the point where your life could be at risk.

ChemicalSuperFreak Jun 05, 2020 11:15 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

SHASTA: How long did it take, and did you use proper mountaineering boots? I have some trail Salomons that I've rigged with some Grivel crampons. They actually work just fine, but are not locked in in the way lever locks and proper welts you'd expect to use for something like ice climbing, but are great for most things on ice and snow in Yosemite backcountry. My ice axes are Grivel as well, and hybrid technical. Great on most surfaces but backwards, upside down slide is troublesome with self-arrest due to the shortened and aggressive pick.

Shasta Guy Jun 05, 2020 10:48 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

CSF: if I get my act together I’ll post an article on the successful summit trip with my two brothers. I’ve actually made 5 summit attempts with the 5th one being successful. Getting to the summit plateau at 14,000’ then looking down onto the Whitney Glacier is a magnificent sight. We’ll figure out how to get in touch.

ChemicalSuperFreak Jun 05, 2020 06:58 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

SHASTA: Thanks for the link and offer of info! I've been turned away from a number of challenging summits, largely out of an abundance of caution. I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't get to the top because it looks like a beautiful mountain just to be on. The summit is just the cherry on top for me.

Shasta Guy Jun 05, 2020 06:36 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

CSF: yes, I’ve summited Mt. Shasta via Avalanche Gulch. I can fill you in on important info to keep you safe and increase the probability of reaching the summit. Of those who attempt, on ~30% reach it.

ChemicalSuperFreak Jun 05, 2020 04:39 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Hi ShastaGuy, have you climbed Mt. Shasta via the Avalanch Gutch route? I'm curious and have been wanting to try it, possibly next April. Figured I'd ask because it seems like you grew up there.

surfergirl69 Jun 04, 2020 11:09 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Here's the link to the original "Little Black Sambo" with original illustrations. It takes 5 min to read. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17824/17824-h/17824-h.htm. I remember reading it as a kid . The story shows a HAPPY, RESPECTFUL, FUNCTIONAL family, with a love for eating lots of pancakes. In the story little black Sambo shows COURAGE, KEEPS HIS WITS, and OUTSMARTS 4 dangerous tigers and brings home a pot of butter for his family. This story presents Sambo and his family very honorably . Sorry to see the restaurant have to change it's name.

surfergirl69 Jun 07, 2020 11:53 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Alexblue.....what people twist into derogatory meanings is another story. I'm just presenting the original roots of "Sambo" "Little Black Sambo" https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17824/17824-h/17824-h.htm Once again, a short story that presents Sambo and his family with love and respect. So, if I was a black person and someone called me "Sambo" in an attempt to demean me, I would just say to them "thanks for the compliment...read the story".

surfergirl69 Jun 07, 2020 11:53 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Alexblue.....what people twist into derogatory meanings is another story. I'm just presenting the original roots of "Sambo" "Little Black Sambo" https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17824/17824-h/17824-h.htm Once again, a short story that presents Sambo and his family with love and respect. So, if I was a black person and someone called me "Sambo" in an attempt to demean me, I would just say to them "thanks for the compliment...read the story".

Alexblue Jun 05, 2020 09:22 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Surfergirl, is that as far in to the subject as you've gone? I'm guessing you didn't read the first hand accounts from the many black people against whom the "Sambo" characterization was used. I'm challenging you to educate yourself.

Alexblue Jun 04, 2020 08:39 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

And while you're at it, here, read some history on the impact of this from 1956. But I seriously doubt that any of you people whining about this restaurant name change will take the time to educate yourselves. https://torontoist.com/2014/01/historicist-banning-little-black-sambo/

Alexblue Jun 04, 2020 08:25 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

How many of you victim claiming right wingers have even read the history of the term "Sambo". "By 1957, the name Sambo already had a long and controversial history. Since as far back as the 1500s, the name had been used to denote a black man. By the 19th century, “Sambo” had become an archetypal degrading character 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.”"

SBitizen Jun 04, 2020 07:12 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I had heard he was reaching out to people earlier this week due to threats being made against the business and the sign would come down whether he took it down or not. I'm only sorry that it is coming down due to threats of violence and since I heard about it on Monday long before this article trusting myself sources. I like Sambos food ( not during tourist season wont go as theres to many people) but my visits there infrequent. Personally I think it's a problem of his own design, the creepy Little Black Sambo memorabilia scattered about made me uncomfortable and could never figure out why Chad wanted to accentuate that. It wasn't a homage to his family or the Indian Prince depictions in the late 70's that the restaurants had. He could have avoided all this by making the mascot the tiger years ago and branding it that way, maybe even keep the full name but he chose to go another way with the dolls and racist books displayed. The only real protests of note I can recall were visiting academics to UCSB in the past, although you definitely feel you had to explain it to out of towners. Also by the way whoever says Santa Barbara is 85% white, google better just use the US Census Bureau online not non census bureau internet sites. US Census lists White as 56.2 % and Latino Hispanic including part as 36.5 % and considering Latino/Hispanic is generally underrepresented in reporting with those who are undocumented that number should probably be higher.

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

I was meaning to catch a meal there in the past couple of months. But didn't make it. I was going to do it to support a friend in town, an African American gentleman, who was the manager of Sambos just prior to the COVID 19 fiasco.

a-1594606764 Jun 05, 2020 01:47 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

And here was my white bread Wisconsin s.o. telling me this evening, although we've eaten at Sambo's ourselves, and my black Step-father used to take us there for breakfast, that "black people don't feel comfortable going there." This gave me pause, because as a Santa Barbara High Schooler we used to go there, friends and black relatives and all, sometimes for breakfast before school. Times change. Sensibilities change. I'm sorry to see the place be "rebranded." Better to be politically correct than to "suffer the slings and arrows" of the offended, I guess.

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