Why This California Restaurant's Name Change Is So Important

Once upon a time back in the dark old days of 1957, a restaurant chain opened in Santa Barbara, California, and it came up with the name — Sambo's — by combining the first name of cofounder Sam Battistone with the first part of the last name of the other cofounder Newell Bohnett. While the name's origin may have been perfectly innocuous, the name itself was anything but. As The Daily Beast makes clear, even back then, the name "Sambo" was used as a racial slur due to its association with a book called The Story of Little Black Sambo that had been written in 1899.

What's more, the restaurant — which soon expanded into a nationwide chain — actively adopted "Little Black Sambo" branding, using images from the book to adorn its walls and menus which were clearly offensive to not only African Americans but also persons of South Asian origin (the book is set in India). In later decades, many locations sidestepped scandal by changing their names to something more generally acceptable, such as "No Place Like Sam's" and "Jolly Tiger," but eventually the chain itself pretty much died out... almost. 

The original Santa Barbara location survived, racist imagery and all, by catering to a crowd big on kitsch and nostalgia and not easily offended. After 63 years, though, Sambo's has agreed to adopt an (as yet undecided) new name. What brought about this long-overdue change?

The reason Sambo's is changing their name

On Memorial Day 2020, the nation was shocked by the horrifying death of George Floyd, an incident that clearly pointed out the systemic racism our society has been struggling with for centuries. At the time of writing, protests are still rocking cities from coast to coast. In addition to in-person protests, the internet has also erupted in outrage. It was one such virtual protest that caused Sambo's change of heart (and name), an online petition that SF Gate revealed garnered thousands of signatures.

Restaurant owner Chad Stevens, the grandson of Sam Battistone, reached out to petition organizer Rashelle Monet to tell her that her point was well taken and that the restaurant would be changing their name right away. He did, however, politely decline the proceeds of a GoFundMe campaign she'd also started to reimburse the restaurant for the expenses the name change would incur. According to a message posted on their Facebook page, the management of the restaurant formerly known as Sambo's have "... looked into our hearts and realize that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal. So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can."

What change looks like at Sambo's

While Sambo's future "is still uncertain," according to their Facebook page (which still uses the Sambo's name, pending the change), the sign outside the restaurant is gone. SF Gate reports that the original sign was covered with black plastic garbage bags as a temporary measure, and it now appears that they have installed a "message of peace and love," although whether as a place holder for a new name or as a permanent installation remains to be seen.

While some Facebook commenters seem to have gotten their tighty-whiteys in a bunch over what they perceive to be the restaurant's "caving" to political correctness, many others were appreciative of their prompt response to the petition. One Facebook user noted that he'd previously refused to patronize the restaurant because of the name, but that he would now reconsider doing so, saying: " Honestly, this change is far too long in coming, but better late than never," while another took on those who claimed the name change was an affront to their childhood memories, stating, "I've been eating at this restaurant literally my whole life. Thanks for growing and changing! I look toward to changing and growing with you." 

Still another user pretty much summed up what so many of us are feeling, telling no-longer-Sambo's, "Thank you for being culturally sensitive and socially responsible at a time when change is imperative."