Oakland Family Restaurant Takes On Marriott After Construction Caused Loss Of Revenue
Uncle Willie’s Original BBQ & Fish was a fixture on 14th Street in Oakland, California. The Black-owned business was frequented by community members and known for its smoky Texas-style barbecue. Now, it has permanently shuttered, becoming another casualty of corporate expansion—the culprit—Marriott Hotels and Resorts. The once-beloved restaurant has since filed a lawsuit against the hospitality chain, alleging that the building’s construction caused a loss of revenue, according to The Oaklandside. This lawsuit is part of a long string of attempts to combat what Oakland residents feel is the erasure of Black businesses.
The Thomas family, who owned the restaurant, issued an official statement saying, “In a few days, the Marriott ownership group will unveil their new hotel in Oakland. They will speak glowingly about the jobs created for Oakland residents, the influx of tax funds to the city, and their overall excitement about investing in the beautification of Downtown Oakland. What they won’t share at the grand opening is how their development destroyed an African American family-owned business that served the Oakland community for almost two decades.”
The Marriott Hotel began construction on the new high-rise in 2020. It is located beside the now-defunct Uncle Willie’s. According to former owner Beverly Ann Thomas, debris frequently fell into her dining area, including dangerous equipment such as a box cutter, metal panels, and several pieces of plastic. Thomas also alleged that the development caused damage to her property and even drove out one on-site tenant.
Clifford Fried, an attorney representing the Thomas family, spoke outside of Uncle Willie’s during a press conference on June 29. “The Thomas family intends on prosecuting the lawsuit they’ve filed to recover fair compensation for the damage to the building, their business, and all the emotional turmoil that they’ve been forced to endure,” he said.
In 2018, before construction, the hotel’s developers approached the Thomas family, requesting to buy their land and air rights. However, they declined. During construction, Uncle Willie’s dealt with dust and harmful debris falling into the dining and cooking area and excessive noise. Though they had been informed of what the development would entail, Craig Jones, Thomas’ son, claims that the family was unaware of its true extent. Jones continues to fight this legal battle in place of his mother, who passed shortly after the press conference.
On 14th Street, home to Oakland’s Black Arts Movement Business District, part of the city’s incentive to preserve historic and culturally-significant Black businesses. On this Street, you can find the African American Museum and Library of Oakland and the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce. However, some residents are worried that the vibrant community will be endangered if development continues. According to the Oaklandside, Geoffrey Pete, the founder and owner of Geofrey’s Inner Circle, spoke at a planning commission meeting in May this year about Marriott’s expansion into the neighborhood. “This building poses a grave danger to the historic building next to it,” he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many establishments have struggled to stay afloat in a deteriorating economy. Others have been forced to abandon their work completely. Now, residents are concerned that the area’s revitalization comes at too steep a cost.
“It’s sad because not a lot of African American businesses are around in Oakland anymore because of big development,” said Jones.