By Jade Shojaee
A couple of months ago, on May 5, Menbere Aklilu, the owner of Saluté e Vita Ristorante in Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood, pampered some 75 low-income single mothers with an all-expense-paid afternoon at the Beauty Salon in Point Richmond and a sit down Mother’s Day brunch in her exquisite fine-dining restaurant.
Aklilu was 10 years old when her own mother, who ran a hotel in Ethiopia, was shot and killed by an irate customer who did not want to pay his bill. Having never met her father, Aklilu turned to her 28 year old brother, Messele Kebede, who brought her to his home in Italy.
As a young women Aklilu aspired to become an actress and fell in love with a smooth-talking director who quickly became her abusive husband. She escaped one week before her due date and gave birth to her son, Christien, in the Casa Dela Madre women’s shelter in Rome where they lived until 1995, when they immigrated to the U.S. and moved into a shelter on 51st street in Oakland close to the only family she had in this country.
Aklilu took a job as a hostess at Saluté e Vita Ristorante working seven days a week at seven dollars an hour. “My first paycheck was 91 dollars,” she said. After being promoted to general manager, Aklilu found herself working for a restaurant that was being put on the market. Though she had been saving her money it was not enough to buy the place, until a rich regular of Salute offered to lend her the money.
Aklilu is now the owner of Saluté e Vita Ristorante.
“When we got our citizenship,” Aklilu recalled, “my son says to me Mom… you and me, we came a long way. I will never forget that never, ever, ever.”
On Mother’s day Aklilu welcomed the many women who have stories similar to hers to enjoy the day to feel carefree. “At least for that half day,” she said, “they forgot.”
“There was so many stories those women have,” she said. “They wanted to tell Menbe what happened to them. They don’t have anyone to hug them. I cried. We cried. I am blessed to be able to do that.”
Sandra Vegas, who recently lost her husband Gus Vegas in a domestic shooting, was the guest of honor at this Mother’s Day event titled Yes, You are Worthy. “It was amazing, it was just so amazing that we’re still just talking about it, me and the girls,” said Vegas. “We felt like princesses.”
Vegas and Aklilu said that they became fast friends as they are both mothers and community leaders. “We have a connection,” said Akilu who recently launched Menbe’s Way Fund, managed by the nonprofit Richmond Community Foundation.
The fund has gone toward many things including assisting underprivileged schools and students. “I take care of them,” said Aklilu. “I send them to private school, I pay tuition once a month.” Aklilu also hosts and teaches etiquette classes in her restaurant, offered to youth free of charge.
Aklilu currently serves as a life coach to women and children in need, and hosts annual Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless and hungry. Last Thanksgiving, some 1,300 people ate for free in her fine dining establishment.
She is currently fundraising to renovate her mother’s Ethiopian hotel and turn it into a shelter “for girls who have no place to go.” After 44 years, Akilu plans to return to Ethiopia to visit the hotel she plans to renovate.
Aklilu and her son still frequent the Casa Del Madre shelter where they lived for so many years to bring food, clothes and money to the women who have yet to overcome their hardships.
“I remember the feeling when I was in the shelter,” said Aklilu. “I couldn’t believe who I am now and who I was. I went in my old room and there was a young mother with baby and no place to go. They couldn’t believe I was there.”
Aklilu is a recent recipient of the prestigious Jefferson award and is planning to release her autobiography called I am Menbe at the end of the year. “I have scar on my face, on my back, on my arm, on my heart. Lifetime scar. But I’m changing it for good.”
For more information or to dine at Aklilu’s restaurant, visit salutemarinabay.com