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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a-1594409074 Jun 06, 2020 11:19 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

False equivalencies? Could be, I dunno, like maybe two wrongs don't make a right or what's good for the goose is good for the goose? People want it both ways, but that only happens at Burger King where YOU can have it YOUR way. Go ahead, it's not my place to destroy you because I disagree with you. Why can't people see this?

Babycakes Jun 06, 2020 10:01 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I agree with Sambo's being offensive, and the name should be changed (just change the first "S" to an "R" and they could serve a selection of MREs). That being said, here's a whataboutism for you: "Trader" Joe's. Talk about a word directly associated with the slave trade, and yet crickets from the easily-offended crowd. One thing I've also never quite understood is how certain groups "own" offensive words/phrases.

chico berkeley Jun 06, 2020 09:16 AM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

How about putting Cracker Barrel,White Castle,and Chick Fillet next to Sambos so people wont have to waste time and energy trying to remember who to march against. Much more efficient Boycotting when everything that offends snowflakes can be in one place.

REX OF SB Jun 05, 2020 04:42 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

It's all well and good to vilify Sambo's, but there is one highly charged offensive local street name that must be changed immediately—a name synonymous with Caucasian domination and oppression. I'm referring, of course, to the short street on the Mesa, called White Avenue. It's ironic, since White Avenue crosses "Fellowship" Road. I wonder if that was an intentional snipe by whoever thought it was a good idea to name a street after an entire war-mongering race—a race that that would go on to spawn the likes of Hitler, David Dukes, Jeffrey Dahmer, Donald Trump, and Charles Manson. "White" Avenue is not culturally appropriate. Its renaming must be put on fast-track by the City.

Roger Jun 05, 2020 04:21 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

I used to eat there all the time when I was younger and working I remember "All you can eat fish Frydays." One time when I was drunk I took the silverware with me when I left they chased me down the street and made me give it back.

a-1594409074 Jun 05, 2020 03:30 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

sambo[ sam-boh ]SHOW IPA noun, plural sam·bos. Older Use: Now Disparaging and Offensive. --- a term used to refer to a black person, especially a male. --- a term used to refer to a Latin American of black and Native American ancestry, or a person of black and white ancestry. ________from Dictionary.com.

Gobbledygook Jun 05, 2020 01:56 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

The Sambo's in Davis, where I grew up, changed its name to Seasons in the early 80's. There was a mural that wrapped around the interior walls depicting the story of a little Indian boy in a turban getting chased by tigers and outwitting them so they chased each other around a tree so fast that they turned into butter, which Sambo then put on his pancakes. I always loved that mural but I even as a kid I found the tiger-butter a bit off-putting. Their pancakes were always served with big scoops of butter and my grandparents had to reassure me it wasn't tigers! At the time I didn't know the history of the name Sambo as a slave name or caricature. After it became Seasons they put awful floral wallpaper over the mural and it felt like a Denny's in there. The fact that the story of "Little Black Sambo" originated with a British colonial stereotype about Indians doesn.t make it less racist in an American context. It was the same British who developed African slavery in their American colonies and made "Sambo" a stereotypical and pejorative slave name. This is a good move by Chad.

sacjon Jun 05, 2020 02:30 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

ZERO - I ate there as a kid a lot, read the book at my grandparent's house. Yeah, so what? How does it make it any less offensive to an entire group of people because you and me (white people) ate there happily? Your logic is lacking. And I never said "we all have been horrified," I said that many many people are offended my the name, "Sambos." I'm not unhinged, I'm just trying to get an idea of why you are so opposed to something so minimal that would help us as a community recognize things need to change. Don't get too full of yourself there lol

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

CORALINE - so what? What do you think that proves/disproves about the hundreds of thousands of people that have been offended throughout the country for the past several decades about the name of this chain? Who cares what the manager's race is? Does he/she speak for everyone just because they work at a place with an offensive name?

Chip of SB Jun 05, 2020 01:53 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

It is unacceptable that a business like Hooters that objectifies, degrades, and demeans women can continue to operate in 2020. What this business does causes so much harm, that we can equate it to physical violence against women and respond accordingly. The very existence of Hooters is a testament to a long and shameful legacy of systemic sexism in this country and we need to put a stop to it! I think that we should set up a regulatory agency to evaluate all business license holders and ensure that any businesses that violate community standards for decency are shut down. I would suggest forming panels of experts from our great universities in fields such as women's studies, ethnic studies, and gender studies. These experts could establish community standards and evaluate business license holders on a routine basis to ensure they remain up to date and in compliance. Businesses like Hooters that are found to be offensive or otherwise out of line could be promptly shut down and the business owners could then be held accountable for the harm caused by their selfish and greedy actions. We have a lot of work to do to overcome our country's shameful legacy of sexism.

Lorax Jun 05, 2020 12:08 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

This is not Constructive change and the message has been completely lost. Its no longer about the brutal wrongful death that shocked and saddened the majority of people. The continued pressure is divisive, we need to come together to move forward. Reverse discrimination going on in this community rooted in anger. The buisnesses have been thru enough. This is a socioeconomic war and frustration about the Covid shut down. This dark movement has taken on a life of its own.

SoapBox Jun 05, 2020 12:42 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Charges of reverse discrimination, really, Lorax? That is almost as laughable as your characterization of this "dark movement" as a war and then blaming it on a pandemic. Get a grip. I see this little ray of social enlightenment as a first small step toward those constructive changes you claim to seek.

CoralineJones Jun 05, 2020 12:38 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

It would be one thing if the owner decided to do it on his own but to be threatened with destruction of teh sign and possibly the restaurant itself as the backdrop, that just rewards violence.

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

Finally, on this topic. 161 comments on the name of a restaurant. So much pearl clutching. Oh, Lordy, why if the name of this restaurant changes, what next?! And at the same time millions of people are speaking up to protect American citizens who are being harassed, assaulted and sometimes murdered under color of authority, by people paid with your tax dollars. But this is what people really want to get worked up about? A restaurant name? Classic.

ZeroHawk Jun 05, 2020 02:24 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

Coraline, i just laughed so hard i peed a little. i love the pearl clutchers comment and its about as true as the sky is blue. Total participation trophy. this is just ridiculous. frankly, this is just separating more people and seapration by skin color. this thread has black and white all over it...which aren't colors BTW...they are shades....just sayin'... but to attack a restraunts name is a bit over the top, especially when I have several friends that are black dudes and they f'n love that food as do I.

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

it's pretty simple: 1. yes the name came from an amalgam of the names of the two original founders/owners; 2. yes, it was a play or pun on the racist story and name Sambo; 3. yes, we know that because they used to use the racist image of Sambo in their ads and promotions; 4. yes, it's beyond time to change the name; 5. those who complain are willing to perpetuate offensive racist stereotypes and should be ashamed of themselves.

sacjon Jun 05, 2020 03:55 PM
Sambo's Restaurant Plans to Rebrand Amid Calls for Boycott

BUMBLEBEE - thank you for being open to this. From what I know from my African American friends (local athletes and scholars and apparently at odds with all the "black dudes" ZEROHAWK "knows"), it's the name and it goes back before the book (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambo_(racial_term)). Remember though, the "Indian" in the book was a depiction of the dark skinned West Indians, who were taken as slaves in the Americas. So either way, it is considered truly offensive to all the African Americans I personally know, in addition to likely all in the US.

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