Restaurant Owner Inspires Recovery in the Bayview: Meet April Spears

“Grilled oysters and Louisiana gumbo, that’s what everyone’s been asking for,” explained April Spears as she served yet another order of her famed dish at the reopening of Cafe Envy in the Bayview on June 13. “I saw that our restaurants around here already serve a lot of heavier soul food and fried food, so I designed Cafe Envy to offer lighter fare, like salmon, salads, and even vegan. All that is doing fine, but during the lockdown it was the oyster and gumbo everyone was calling about.”

Cafe Envy opened 2 years ago, and is Spears’ second restaurant. Her first, Auntie April’s Chicken, Waffles, and Soul Food opened in 2008 during the recession. She actually sold her 401k to open Auntie April’s. “My family thought I was crazy. And they’re right! I am crazy, but I’ve always gambled on myself.”

Livable City first began working with Spears during the planning phase of the 2016 Sunday Streets. “Everyone said we had to talk to her,” according to Katy Birnbaum, Livable City’s Associate Director. “In addition to being a successful Black entrepreneur, she was also a local powerhouse strengthening Black owned businesses and the whole Bayview community.”

Born and raised in the Bayview, Spears started the restaurants because she wanted “to inspire our youth to do greater and bigger things with their lives. I want them to see that, even if you are born into poverty or any situation where you feel caged, you can get out of that situation and do something.”

As if running two restaurants isn’t enough, she lives out her love of the community as Co-chair of the African American Arts and Culture District, Co-chair of the Merchants of Butchertown, and as a member of the board of Economic Development On Third Street.

When asked how she runs two restaurants and volunteers so much to enrich the Bayview, Spears notes that, “Being a black woman in SF, I’ve always had to deal with systemic racism; it’s always been an uphill battle. If it’s not uphill it’s almost too easy! The endurance for the long haul – I’ve been training for this my whole life.”

Her latest love is her baby girl Mazahri. And like many good moms, Spears joined a new mothers group. The members of the Black Mothers Collective are all business owners, but none own their own homes. “We’ve always been taught to just survive day to day. I want Black people to think bigger about economics and their future, and to learn how to acquire property and invest. It’s about preserving African American businesses, opening new businesses, and economic development for the community. We’re making really great moves, doing some great things in the community. The pandemic really opened our eyes to what needs to be done. Just stay tuned, we’re going to have some important news soon.”

As San Francisco comes out of the lockdown, Spears is concerned for the safety of her staff and customers, but is excited to be back in business. “I’m so happy to see my community and have them enjoy my food again, but it’s a whole new world trying to do this while keeping everyone safe. Fortunately, my mom has been here to help. She always has my best interest at heart and is always protecting me. We can drive each other crazy because we do things so differently … but we realized that in the end, we always arrive at the same place.”

“Livable City made a big difference too. On opening day, they helped me read through all the fine print so we were compliant with every one of the new COVID regulations, arranged the permits and brought in the chairs and tables and signs for outdoor dining, and then they showed up en masse and pitched in to get us through a day where we sold out of everything we had!”

Going forward, Spears knows that reviving Black owned businesses in the Bayview is an uphill battle. “We need help from outside of the community, from those who have the ability to help. We need them to treat us as equals to allow us access to loans and capital. For example, if I’ve owned a business for decades, and if I don’t qualify for a loan … how do I qualify? What do I need to do, and what do you need to do differently to make things happen?”

Going forward, Livable City will do what we can for minority-owned businesses in marginalized neighborhoods by providing technical support to improve online marketing as well as assistance with COVID regulations and outdoor space usage. After all, creating vital retail corridors is a core tenet of the urbanist toolkit. As we learn to center the needs of San Francisco’s Black community in our work, we will continue to evolve in what we do, how we work in community with the most vulnerable and oppressed, and effectively support the communities to achieve their goals.