Holland treats the restaurant like her living room, introducing regulars to one another from the open kitchen. "I like to connect people. I'll see someone and say, 'Oh, you've gotta meet so-and-so.' Or they'll come to me and say, 'Do you know anyone who can paint?'" Customers and neighbors helped her improve the street lighting around the diner and install benches so people in line could sit. A regular before she became Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan recently stepped in to deal with a parking issue affecting Holland's second restaurant, B-Side BBQ, which she opened this past winter a few blocks away. "Where else would I be living and running a restaurant where the mayor calls me to say, 'What can we do to help?'"

Of course, West Oakland's problems are deeper than one restaurant can solve; Brown Sugar Kitchen is open only from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., because the area is desolate after dark. But Holland is also doing what she can to support local businesses, purchasing everything from the apple cider to the doilies under the pastries from her neighbors.

Brown Sugar Kitchen's success has rewired her. "I always had a certain vision for my life, but it seems like destiny had another plan," she says. Now even her TV experience seems to have led her to this point: "Every time we open the door, first thing in the morning, it's like, Show time!"

Emily Kaiser Thelin, who writes often for Food & Wine and The Wall Street Journal, is based in Berkeley.

Next: Get the recipes from Brown Sugar Kitchen


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