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American restaurant history changes in Santa Barbara with the end of Sambo’s

Sambos
John Palminteri
Sambos is changing its name after 63 years on the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Photo: John Palminteri)
Sambos
John Palminteri
Sambos is changing its name after 63 years on the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Photo: John Palminteri)
Sambos sign
John Palminteri
Sambos is changing its name after 63 years on the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Photo: John Palminteri)
Sambos sign
John Palminteri
Sambos is changing its name after 63 years on the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Photo: John Palminteri)
Sambos
John Palminteri
Sambos is changing its name after 63 years on the Santa Barbara waterfront. (Photo: John Palminteri)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The first Sambo's restaurant in America is now the last to go out. The doors, however, will remain open in what's becoming a rapid unplanned business change.

The five-letter sign has been covered up with a new look but it won't come down.

Temporarily, and maybe permanently, it will have a peace symbol, the "&" sign and the word love. Peace and love.

The owner Chad Stevens a grandson of one of the founders, made the decision after hearing from Rashelle Monet. She is a resident who brought up the issue, not unknown to Stevens, about the racial interpretation of the Sambos name.

"Even though it didn't come from a bad place, it is still a very hurtful term for a lot of people," said Monet. "I understand it wasn't intentional.   I am not saying that Sambos and the owners are racist.  I am saying the slur is racist."

Sam Battistone and Newell "Bo" Bohnett partnered to open the waterfront area restaurant on June 17, 1957. The name came from a few letters in each of their names. "Sam" and "Bo."

"It was his name and partners name Sam and Bo, something I respect and continue to but I understand there's some hurt in that but we will move forward," said Stevens. 

Over the years racial interpretations over the name and a connection with the 1899 children's book "The Story of Little Black Sambo" caused a widespread negative view of the restaurant chain.

The character in the book was a dark skinned boy from South India. The term "Sambo" however became associated as an offensive name to blacks.

There was also a children's storybook, "Little Black Sambo."

At its peak, Sambos had 1,117 restaurants in 47 states.

The chain began failing in the 1970's and faced protests.

Some of the restaurants were turned into Denny's, Bakers Square and Godfather's Pizza.

Many former staff members went on to open their own restaurants in and around Santa Barbara.

Stevens took over the restaurant in 1998 without any rebranding. It is a piece of his Battistone family history. It is a piece of Santa Barbara history.

Stevens says the time has come to change the name as he watches the nation speak out loudly against racial injustice.

He says Sambos is an example of diversity among the staff. There's an African-American manager, and hispanic, transgender, and white employees on the team.

Earlier this week, a request was made for a name change on social media and in a Santa Barbara City Council public comment statement by Rashelle Monet. She had also planned a rally Sunday to call attention to her cause.

Since then a GoFundMe page was put together to help pay for the rebranding of Sambos.

Stevens said that would not be necessary and he would pay the costs to change the sign, menus, web page updates and promotional materials. He encouraged Monet to use the money from donations for another cause.

In the last three days, the decision was made, along with new lettering, for now,  until a new name is decided upon. This is the first idea is a peace sign, the "&" symbol and the word love. Other ideas are being considered.

Monet said after talking with Stevens, "he is very kind. We are working on this together. Now it is going to say peace and love and that's like one of the biggest things we need right now  - unity."

After a week of emotions over racial issues, Stevens says, "with the current environment of our country we need to come together and as the sign says Peace and Love."

It's still to be determined what the new name of the restaurant will be. For now, we know what it won't be.

Monet has never had a meal at Sambos. With a new name she says she will, and she may be breaking bread, or in the case of this restaurant, a stack of pancakes, with Stevens on the other side of the table.

Economy / Lifestyle / National Politics / Politics / Santa Barbara- S County

John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and KCOY 12 Central Coast News.