It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly draws you into Pinky & Red’s. It could be the nostalgic ambience of a 50’s diner, the complimentary notes scribbled on the pink-and-white-striped walls or perhaps the warm, comforting smell of chicken sizzling in the fryer.
Pinky & Red’s is one of five restaurants occupying the MLK Jr. Student Union as a part of the La Cocina program. La Cocina provides affordable kitchen spaces and market opportunities primarily for women of color as well as women from immigrant backgrounds.
Bernadine Sewell, also known as Pinky, and her daughter Sicily Johnson co-founded Pinky & Red’s, named after their respectively brightly-dyed pink and red hair. Their restaurant may have only been established last year, but the recipes and menu date back several generations. On the walls of Pinky and Red’s are photographs of Sewell’s ancestor, who cooked food on a slave plantation. His recipes have been passed down through the generations, eventually reaching the UC Berkeley campus.
While some families might gather in their living room, Sewell said everything in her family’s house — from dinners to discussions to listening to records — happened at the kitchen table, hence the record player and records sitting on the counter at Pinky & Red’s.
“It’s just in our blood,” Sewell said. “We grew up cooking and Sunday dinners, it was just so important to the African American family. We wanted to bring that experience … to the campus.”
The duo started out serving their comfort food in the form of sandwiches at pop-up restaurants in San Francisco before coming to campus through the La Cocina program. When they came to Berkeley, Sewell said they had to tweak their menu and work with what they were given. For example, because they were only given a fryer and a grill, instead of serving baked macaroni and cheese, Johnson had the innovative idea to roll the macaroni into a ball mixed with some kale and drop it in the fryer — resulting in their beloved fried mac ‘n’ cheese balls.
Sewell said the student response to their southern-style comfort meals have been nothing short of “magical,” evident by the countless compliments scribbled all over the restaurant’s walls. Sewell said they treat everybody with the “southern hospitality” they were raised with. For instance, when people forgot to put money onto their card but show up hungry, promising to pay them back, Sewell does not hesitate to feed them — whether they bring the money back or not.
The consistent support from students and friendly attitude of the staff made it all the more shocking when last semester, Pinky & Red’s was faced with possibly losing their space in the Student Union.
Courtney Brousseau, chair of the ASUC Student Union Board of Directors, said the misunderstanding began during the summer, when the board decided to work with La Cocina to fill the Student Union’s food retail spaces. There was, however, another proposal from the Student Food Collective, or SFC, to use space 107 — where Pinky & Red’s is currently located — as a “campus kitchen,” repurposing leftover food from the dining halls and other vendors to be sold on a sliding scale to those facing food insecurity.
According to Brousseau, the space was to supposed to go to the SFC in the fall 2018 semester, but the SFC did not have a proper business proposal in place for the fall semester, so Pinky and Red’s was given the space. According to Dominick Williams, community programs director for the Black Student Union, La Cocina failed to inform Pinky & Red’s that their lease lasted for only a semester — not a year.
“That was very unfair,” Williams said. “There needs to be a proper communication channel … before you start making decisions.”
Sewell found out about the conflict when, last semester, a representative from the SFC came to her saying he was promised the space, and that they needed to discuss how Pinky & Red’s would either share or evacuate the space.
Sewell was told her business would occupy the spot for the entire academic year. She recalled the whole experience being “awkward” and “uncomfortable” — unsure as to why only one of the five eateries who occupy the Student Union via La Cocina had been told to leave.
“In reality, it all boiled down down to miscommunication and the failure of some part of the plan,” Brousseau said. “We (Student Union board) have an obligation to be more clear in our intentions.”
Williams worked with Sewell and Johnson to eventually draft a petition to keep Pinky & Red’s in the Student Union. Eventually collecting about 1,900 petition signatures, Williams attributed the massive display of support to Pinky & Red’s unique ability to connect with people in the community — not to mention their delicious food.
“Every single person had nothing but positive things to say,” Williams said. “They truly completely integrated themselves into the Cal community.”
The Student Union board would eventually vote to either allow Pinky & Red’s to stay or allow the SFC to occupy the space, and in the meantime, Sewell said she focused on coming into work every day and praying things would work out.
Interestingly, right before the vote, the SFC withdrew their bid for space 107. Therefore the board voted unanimously to not terminate the contract with La Cocina and keep Pinky & Red’s, at least until May.
Sewell was busy opening her restaurant when she suddenly heard students rattling the gates, screaming, “You won!” She described her initial reaction to the news as an “out of body experience.”
Almost 2,000 petition signatures later, Pinky & Red’s is still standing. Sewell said that throughout this tumultuous experience, the main thing she’s learned is to “take one day at a time.”