It can be hard to run a successful restaurant in the Bay Area. And there are additional challenges that come with being a trans chef. But despite those hurdles, one Oakland restaurant owner is determined to make it work.
On a typical weekend day, Sofi Espice is up early to get ready for work. They might go to the market to buy ingredients, or swing by their satellite kitchen to pick up some cooking equipment. Their car broke down a while back, so they’ll be carrying all of that on their bike, or balancing it on their skateboard.
They get to their restaurant in time to get ready for brunch, which starts at 11 a.m. Some days they won’t get out of here until 11 p.m.
When you walk in, you might hear Espice taking a phone order: “Hello, this is Gay4U, where we are gay for you! This is Sofi speaking, how can I help you?”
You might be able to tell from the name, but Gay4U isn’t the most traditional restaurant. For one thing, the dishes have names like the New Magic Breakfast Burrito and the Gay for Parfait.
But there’s another unusual thing about this place. They give away a lot of free food.
Gay4U is on a busy corner in Downtown Oakland, just a couple of blocks from City Hall. It's a small, narrow space with the kitchen in the middle, and a seating area with a few tables on either side.
On one of the days I visit, Espice is both cooking and running the register. Every time someone comes in they have to finish what they’re working on in the kitchen, go up to the register and take an order, then wash their hands again, and jump back into cooking.
It’s a repeating pattern. A new customer comes in, Espice chats with them and takes their order, then they wash their hands and start cooking again.
Espice has been working in the food industry for almost 20 years. But they’ve been feeding people for even longer than that. Their parents didn’t make many meals for the family, so Espice learned to feed themself, and other people, early.
“I’ve been cooking since I was a baby, for my older brother and I,” Espice explains. “Cooking was a way I showed love at an early age.”
About a decade ago, Espice started running their own pop-ups and a food truck called Hella Vegan Eats. Then they rented space from a bar and Hella Vegan Eats became a more permanent restaurant. But Espice and the bar’s landlord didn’t get along, and they couldn’t agree on how to run the space. Last year, the landlord asked them to leave.
“It was just a difficult transaction being under someone else’s roof,” Espice says. “When we finally got the boot, it was just a difficult end of the road.”
Finding space isn’t the only thing that’s been hard about working in the restaurant industry. Especially since Espice came out as trans a decade ago.
“I’ve worked at places where they were not nice to me for being trans and just like, asked me really inappropriate things, and talked to me in inappropriate ways,” Espice tells me. “And then I just had to work with those people.”
Espice isn’t alone in these experiences. According to industry research, more than half of trans people working in restaurants have been sexually harassed. So Espice has worked really hard to make sure their restaurant isn’t like that — it’s a nurturing workplace for their largely queer staff.
“I find that a lot of the times I’m experiencing the world, there’s not that many people like me,” Espice says. “And so it’s nice to be together in a workplace and just understand each other.”
They also want it to be a supportive space for Oakland’s LGBTQ community, and specifically trans people of color. One way they’re doing that is by advertising free food for them.
“Most trans folk of color don’t come from the best supported places,” Espice says. “It’s really important for me to show up for them, and to not only provide them with a space, but also be like, please come and eat here.”
Espice actually gives away a lot of free food, not just to trans people of color. They bring leftovers to homeless encampments. And if someone comes into Gay4U and says they can’t afford to pay for a meal, Espice doesn’t turn them away.
“Whoever wants to come in, I strongly suggest it,” they say. “Even if they don’t have the means. That’s how we can best survive, is helping each other.
Still, it’s important to Espice to be clear that trans and queer people specifically are welcome at Gay4U. That idea also shows up in the restaurant’s name. It’s kind of a secret code, a signal that speaks directly to anyone who feels the name might apply to them.
As Espice puts it, “The whole goal of Gay4U is to be there for the community. It’s literally for you.”
And in order to be there, Espice needs to keep Gay4U open. So, it might seem counterintuitive to give food away for free. But they don’t see it that way.
“I feel like if I’m going to survive as a business, then I have to still be me,” Espice says. “And who I am is still going to be providing for people as much as I can.”
Okay, but don’t businesses have to make money? Well, it’s not just Espice taking care of others. Their community has taken care of them, too. After Hella Vegan Eats closed, supporters raised over $15 thousand to help Espice secure space for Gay4U.
In December, they hosted a fundraiser in the new space. I got to meet some of Gay4U’s supporters and find out what brings them here.
“I really like its mission and what it’s trying to do for trans POC people in Oakland,” one customer told me.
“I just wanted to support something like this, because I feel like inclusive spaces, like this is, are very important,” said another.
People mentioned this feeling that there aren’t a lot of other places like Gay4U — spaces for queer and trans people to just hang out, that aren’t focused on accessing services at a community center, and also aren’t centered around alcohol or partying.
All of this support has allowed Espice to keep giving to others in a positive feedback loop. As Espice explains, if they can take the money they make at the restaurant, “and then put three of those dollars into providing food, then that’s how I should do it.”
There are a lot of variables, and Espice knows that this may not be permanent. Rent could go up, or their lease could not get renewed. But their plan is to keep going, however they can.
“I think I’ll always cook as long as I have the limbs and stuff, and a head,” Espice says. “I think that I’ll always be making food for people.”