Menbere Aklilu, the highly charitable owner of Salute E Vita Ristorante in Richmond’s Marina Bay, has announced today that her restaurant will officially close on July 6.
Aklilu said the decision to close results from an ongoing dispute with the landlord of the restaurant property at 1900 Esplanade Drive. She says she will remain a Richmond resident and will continue her charitable work through the Menbe’s Way Fund.
Salute, a fine-dining, waterfront restaurant that regularly holds community benefit events such as the annual Thanksgiving event feeding over 1,000 local homeless and others in need, has been in a long-running dispute with landlord Virtual Development Corp., formerly Penterra Company, led in part by Richard Poe. The Poe family originally built the restaurant in the mid-1980s, and it was originally called “Hawthorne’s,” said Mayor Tom Butt, who called Wednesday “a sad day” in response to Salute’s closure announcement.
In 2016, Aklilu received a 30-day notice to vacate the restaurant building after the landlord cited maintenance issues. Community members rallied against the eviction order and volunteered their time and resources to tackle some of the maintenance issues. Meanwhile, Mayor Butt accused Poe of sending the eviction order as political retribution for the city blocking Poe’s development plan for the area. Poe denied the accusation.
Although Salute stayed open, Aklilu said her relationship with her landlord continued to be difficult. The restaurant has been on a month-to-month lease.
During the last 15 years, Aklilu was credited with making Salute E Vita profitable and charitable. Due to her annual Thanskgiving feast for the homeless, the annual Mother’s Day luncheon serving moms from local public housing, and also various fundraisers assisting local nonprofits and victims of natural disasters, Aklilu became a beacon of hope in the community. She provided over 30,000 meals to the less fortunate in the community and donated over $800,000 to charitable organizations, according to restaurant officials.
“Her dedication to her community turned Salute E Vita into a destination, bringing people from far and wide to Richmond’s Marina Bay,” according to the restaurant’s statement.
Her good deeds attracted contributions from many local businesses and community members. She received several prestigious awards as a result of her charitable acts, including the Jefferson Award for volunteerism, the Contra Costa Commission for Women’s Hall of Fame Award, the East Bay Philanthropy Award, the California Small Business Award, and the Humanitarian Award from the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame.
Aklilu’s charity resulted in part from her past struggles. She was raised in Ethiopia, where she witnessed her mother, who ran a hotel and restaurant, being murdered by a customer over an unpaid bill. Later in life after moving to Italy, Aklilu became the victim of domestic violence. After escaping her husband, she lived in a homeless shelter while pregnant.
About 23 years ago, Aklilu immigrated to the U.S. and lived in Oakland public housing with her 10-year-old son. She went to Salute’s seeking a job, and landed a job as hostess due in part to her mastery of the Italian language. She started at $7 an hour, worked hard, moved up the ranks to supervisor and then to manager. When the previous owners decided to sell the restaurant, a customer suggested that Menbe buy it and even offered to loan her the money. Menbe became the owner in 2003.
Aklilu said closing the restaurant “was not an easy one to make.”
On July 5 and 6, the community is invited to Salute’s to celebrate her departure with a free meal. In lieu of gifts, Aklilu requests those attending to offer a cash donation that will be distributed to the restaurant’s more than 40 staff members. Please RSVP online at www.salutemarinabay.com or via phone at 510-215-0803.