Salute e Vita Ristorante closes its doors

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Salute e Vita Ristorante closes its doors
Menbe Aklilu addresses diners on July 5 as the restaurant prepared to officially close the following day. Hundreds of community members came to the beloved eatery in the final two days to thanks Aklilu for her contributions. Photo credit: Salute e Vita Ristorante

About 800 people attended the final meal at Salute E Vita Ristorante in Richmond’s Marina Bay on Friday, according to Bay City News, as the popular waterfront restaurant closed following a long-running dispute between its owner and the property’s landlord.

Owner Menbere Aklilu, who ran the fine-dining Italian eatery at 1900 Esplanade Dr. for 15 years and gained notoriety in the community for organizing a number of charitable events and donations benefiting neighbors in need, said she plans to open a new restaurant in Richmond. KTVU (Ch. 2) reported she plans to open a restaurant in Point Richmond early next year. Aklilu says details for the new location are still being worked out, according to BCN journalist Janis Mara’s report.

Aklilu’s final speech at Salute’s, recorded and posted on Facebook, came before she was honored by a number of local dignitaries including Richmond Mayor Tom Butt and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

During her speech and also in a letter of gratitude to diners, Aklilu said she was heartbroken about leaving the restaurant where she started as a host more than two decades ago, but was looking forward to the next chapter in her life.

“The love and support from you all has been astonishing,” Aklilu said. “From the moment I announced the closure of Salute, the phone has not stopped ringing with people offering help.”

A domestic violence survivor from Ethopia, Aklilu came to America in 1995 with her then 10-year-old son, having immigrated from Italy. She said she and her son were living in subsidized housing in Oakland when she applied for a host job at Salute. She said she earned the job due to her proficiency with the Italian language and food.

She started at $7 per hour, then moved up the ranks to supervisor and then manager. When the previous owners decided to sell the restaurant, a customer suggested Aklilu buy it, and loaned her a half-million dollars to do so in 2003. Aklilu says she paid off the loan in less than a year.

Aklilu later began to use Salute as a launching pad for good deeds in the community, most notably through an annual Thanksgiving event feeding over 1,000 local homeless and others in need, as well as donations to various causes including to the West County Family Justice Center, a one-stop shop for abused women.

She has treated Richmond students to free meals, and has held numerous events where a percentage of the cost of diners’ meals went to assist people in the community, such as the Richmond Fire and Police holiday Program and for victims impacted by the North Bay fires.

Annually, she held a Mother’s Day event pampering moms from local public housing, as well as moms who have lost children to violence.

She’s had a knack for attracting attention and support from community residents and businesses, which worked to bolster the impact of her events. The charitable works earned her praise and ample recognition, including the Jefferson Award for volunteerism, and also led to the formation of the Menbe’s Way Fund.

The closing of the restaurant follows a long-running, and well-documented dispute with her landlord.

In the final two days of Salute’s existence, diners were fed for free and instead encouraged to donate to the restaurant’s more than 40 staff members. The event also celebrated Aklilu’s birthday.

Aklilu thanked several community members and organizations for stepping up to help following the closure announcement, including local attorneys Joshua Genser, John Knox and Andrew Butt for pro bono work; Alan Hanrahan and Xavier Martinez for assisting with closing details; the Black Women Lawyers Association of Northern California for legal advice about her next chapter; the All Train Engineering Company of Richmond for helping her move heavy equipment out of the restaurant; and the Contra Costa College students who offered to help her pack. A storage company wishing to remain anonymous offered free storage, and the WestPark Valet Parking provided all day valet for July 5-6 valued at $6,000.

Similarly, she thanked the many community members and businesses for their generous contributions that have helped make her charitable events possible and impactful.

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