UPDATE, April 4 at 2:30 p.m. PT – Miliki co-owners reach new lease agreement with landlord
The Miliki co-owners and the landlord were able to reach an agreement on a new lease for the restaurant space that will allow Miliki to stay for the next five years. Ismael Okunade, co-owner of Miliki, says he has the lease and hopes to meet with the landlord by the end of the week to “put the ink on paper.”
The fate of one Oakland restaurant lies in the balance nearly a year after news first broke of its potential closing.
Miliki — meaning “enjoyment” in the Nigerian-Yoruba language — offers live music and traditional West African cuisine, making it a staple attraction in Oakland’s Laurel District.
“More and more people really need this,” said Bummi Aretbe, one of three Miliki co-owners. “We didn’t know until we went into it.”
Landlord Paul Schneider bought Miliki and the nail shop next door in June 2015 with the intention of opening a chocolate and gelato shop.
“It’s two buildings in one. He wanted to use next door for ice cream,” Aretbe said. The Miliki owners were surprised soon after when Schneider “sent us an email that we have to move. That he needs this space too.”
“We were shocked,” Aretbe said. “The plan was he would give us a temporary lease, then by January  he would give us a new lease.”
Ismael Okunade, another Miliki co-owner, said in phone interviews in 2016 and 2017 that Schneider had first told him after he purchased the property that he wanted to turn the Miliki space into a beer garden and restaurant and use the smaller space next door for his chocolate and gelato shop.
Gentrification may be the immediate word that comes to mind for this situation. But for Schneider, this is not about displacing a cultural staple in the Laurel community. He has been working toward opening his dream business for 15 years, according to a report by the East Bay Express.
Schneider declined to comment, but on his Facebook page said that he has “lived in Oakland for almost 30 years and used to live in the Laurel.” So this is not a case of a “new person coming in, not knowing the area” and “yuppifying/hipsterizing” it with “big money.”
Still, the fulfillment of Schneider’s longstanding restaurateur dreams means the potential end of Miliki’s.
For now, the Miliki co-owners have a reprieve. Schneider’s beer garden plans were delayed indefinitely due to a delay in building permits, according to a February 2016 Facebook post on his page. This is the last time he publicly commented on his plans for the space.
But the Milki co-owners remain uncertain of the future of their restaurant, which has been at that location in the Laurel District since 2009.
“If we find a very good location that we can build upon, that’s what we are looking for right now,“ Okunade said. But “most of the places we are looking at are very, very expensive.”
Miliki isn’t the first business in the Laurel to be faced with displacement. In October the San Francisco Chronicle profiled Glenn’s Hot Dogs, a family-owned restaurant that was replaced in August by a San Francisco barbecue chain.
“This old school hot dog stand that just shut down about three months ago just got bought out by a gentrified white-owned barbecue spot,” said Jason Wallach, owner of the Laurel Cyclery, in an October phone interview. “And we already got a barbecue spot down here — Everett and Jones, an Oakland standard.”
Wallach and the rest of the business owners in the Laurel may not be able to combat the influx of new businesses in their neighborhood. But they are supporting their community.
“We made these banners that say ‘We heart Miliki’ and put it up all through the neighborhood,” said Wallach. “This concept of solidarity is very important.”
“There’s a story here about displacement and gentrification. There’s also a story about resilience and how people come together in the wake of that,” Wallach said.
For his part, Okunade recalled the rallies and outcries of support Miliki has received from the Laurel residents. But he also remains ambivalent about the future.
“You cannot fight a situation where you don’t have a lease. Right now there is no lease.”
CORRECTION – Editor’s Note (4/5/2017): In this story originally published April 3, 2017, Peninsula Press misnamed a barbeque restaurant in Oakland. It is named Everett and Jones.