MarshawnLynchSoulFood

Marshawn Lynch Is Fighting for the Soul of Oakland, California

With his new Bay Area restaurant, Rob Ben’s, NFL running back Lynch is giving his hometown a chance to stay family, to stay Black — and to stay Oakland

You might say that semi-retired NFL running back Marshawn Lynch’s restaurant, Rob Ben’s, serves as a welcome center for Oakland. After all, it’s situated right on the city line, located on top of the thin blue border that separates Oakland from Emeryville on the map. Standing outside, if you’re facing Rob Ben’s front door, and you turn left and walk one block south down San Pablo Avenue, you’re in Oakland. If you turn right and walk one block north, you’re in Emeryville. Basically, if you walk past Rob Ben’s, you’re in Oakland. If you go the other way, you’re leaving Oakland. 

The vibe, however, is no doubt 100 percent Oakland. A family-owned, family-run Black business, this is the part of the city most threatened by the monied tech bros who were pushed out by the high prices of the neighbor across the Bay, San Francisco. And so, Rob Ben’s isn’t just about serving food; it’s Lynch’s attempt to give his hometown a fighting chance to stay family, to stay Black, to stay Oakland. 

Lynch first opened the doors to Rob Ben’s on December 14, 2018. Back in October of last year, John Taffer from Bar Rescue came by, shot an episode and helped remodel and re-launch the restaurant and bar. (The episode has yet to air.) On one of my first visits there, every face inside is Black — and happy. A couple of people are drinking at the bar, but since it’s lunchtime, most are seated at tables. At one, a couple of young brothers discuss the NFL free agent market. At another, a few other brothers discuss the menu and point out their favorite dishes. To get a true taste myself, I order the chicken wings with a side of greens and a ginger ale. When my plate arrives, it features a heaping serving of jumbo wings decorated in a heavy dusting of parmesan and chunks of garlic. It all glistens with butter. The greens are neither limp nor oily. Everything smells amazing.

The spot

To keep things that way, Lynch has entrusted the spot to his Auntie Kecia. “I was sitting on the couch watching TV late one night,” she recalls of the moment when Lynch came to her with his idea to open a soul food joint. “The next thing I know, I hear a knock. Marshawn’s like, ‘C’mon, step outside. I need to talk to you.’ And I’m like, ‘Why? What’s wrong?!?!’ Because I’m thinking something must be wrong. But he’s like, ‘I think I’m gonna buy it.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ And he was like, ‘I think you should run it. Or do you just wanna cook?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I think I can do both.’ It took off from there.”

“On Tuesday, I do barbecue,” she continues. “On Wednesday, I do garlic crabs, garlic noodles and prawns. On Thursday, I do smothered pork chops and smothered turkey chops. The turkey’s for people who don’t eat pork. Because I don’t eat pork myself.” She pauses, smiles and then gets back to business: “I want to add two vegan items. I have one chef who specializes in vegan and vegetarian food, because we’re trying to expand it out and have something for everyone. Our community is so diverse, I want to make sure we can accommodate everyone.” 

My garlic and parmesan wings.

Auntie Kecia has her own recipes, but she’s constantly experimenting. She also has expectations from the neighborhood — and from people traveling who’ve heard about the new spot in Oakland. People like Snoop Dogg’s mom, who then insisted her son come through for a plate when he was in town. “We’re a local-based restaurant,” Auntie Kecia explains. “We want to serve our community; they come in and expect to see certain items. They’ll be like, ‘Where’s the red beans and rice? Where’s the chicken wings?’”

Uncle Snoop and Auntie Kecia’s grandbaby.

Many of the items on Rob Ben’s menu are named after Lynch’s family members. Like, you can order a plate called the Momma Lynch: three pieces of fish, three wings and two pork chops, with a choice of two sides. There’s also the Antee Rose — five pieces of fish and five prawns. And there is, of course, a Beastmode Platter, for obvious reasons. It features 10 wings, six pieces of fish, six oysters, six prawns, four pork chops and a choice of five large sides. All told, that’s $87.99 worth of soul food. 

Desire, a 28-year-old waitress working the floor, tells me that this is her first time working in a restaurant. In fact, it’s her first job ever. She says her mom came into Rob Ben’s and asked Auntie Kecia if they needed any servers. Her mom came back home and told her to go in and apply. She’s one of the few non-family members working at Rob Ben’s. “Marshawn is here more often than you’d think,” she tells me. “Sometimes he helps bring out plates. Sometimes if it’s busy, he helps us take waters or Beastmode margaritas to the table. He sweeps, he cleans.”

Given that dedication, I ask her if Lynch and Rob Ben’s is giving her any hope that Oakland can remain Oakland. “Definitely,” she responds, before pausing to think. A sadness colors her words when she explains how it’s going at the moment. “It’s coming so fast,” she says. “I’m only 28, so for me to see all this change, from me being little to now, it’s a lot. Like, my great-grandmother is 99 years old. She came out here from Texas. She used to live on Seventh Street. Seventh Street used to be where everything was: the businesses, bars and gambling shacks. My great-grandmother says if we put her in a car and she sees the people that’s walking their dogs down the street — and just how it is now generally — she’d never believe it. It’s crazy.”

Rob Ben’s itself actually replaced a beloved Oakland fixture, a legendary soul-food restaurant called Scend’s. The owners were growing older. They wanted to sell and relocate. Lynch, meanwhile, wanted to make sure his hometown didn’t lose another Black-owned business, a place people counted on to get good soul food. So he bought it and renamed it.

Now Lynch’s brother, David, works behind the bar. They look very similar. At first glance, you could mistake him for Marshawn, or vice versa. With an easy smile, David tells me he’s 39, making him six years older than his little brother. He also tells me this is his first bartending job. “So far, the journey has had its ups, and it’s had its downs. It has times when there’s speed; it has times when it’s slow. Other than that, it’s been good. I enjoy doing this bartender thing, I love making drinks for people. And I love seeing people laughing.”

After Lynch met up with Auntie Kecia to tell her how he’d made up his mind to save Scend’s from the maw of gentrification, he next asked David what he wanted to do in the new family business. “It was like, ‘I’m about to buy this restaurant, bruh. You know what Scend’s is…,’” David recalls, as he does a flawless impression of his brother. “Because everybody knows Scend’s. Especially, us. We grew up around here. This is our area. We know Scend’s. And he was like, ‘Bruh, it’s been having a bar in it.’”

And with that, David was hired. “As you can see, it’s mostly all family in here,” he continues. He points to the kitchen: “We got Auntie Kecia cooking. We got another auntie who’s gonna be back here in the bar with me. We got cousins in the back cooking. Now, not all our family can hold they end. So we gotta go outside the family to get some other people. But we always wanna go family first. Because that’s what we about.”

David, like most good bartenders, is a layman philosopher and a patient observer. He comes back with a fresh beer and tells me, “It’s like this, bruh, I tell people who said this spot was their home before we got here, ‘If this was home for you when this was Scend’s, let this be home for you now that it’s Rob Ben’s. We ain’t tryin’ to take your home from you. We just tryin’ to keep it Black-owned.’ Before they really gentrify us all and get us up outta here. Let’s keep Oakland, until then. Somehow, someway.”

* * * * *

On a late afternoon, I return to Rob Ben’s for another plate — this time, barbecue wings and mac ’n’ cheese. I also meet with Malcolm, a young Black man who’s a musician. He plays trombone and plans to learn drums and piano next. Or maybe sax and violin; he isn’t sure yet. For now, he works at Rob Ben’s as a chef. “I started coming here after I heard Marshawn bought a restaurant,” he tells me. “I was like, ‘I want to see what kind of food they got going on over there and what type of food he like to eat.’ Then, eventually, I wanted to work here. Because I’ve been a chef for the majority of my life.”

As for his boss, he says, “[Marshawn’s] great. He’s nicer than the media makes him look like. He’s a really cool guy. Like, I don’t want to leave. This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Everybody does everything, and everybody’s a family. We all communicate. Nobody’s on anybody’s shoulders all day, or anything like that. That’s what I like.”

Wings and a side of mac ‘n’ cheese.

Lynch famously doesn’t talk to the press. Throughout his pro football career he avoided reporters as reliably as he went full Beastmode against opposing players. His yawning silence before the waiting sporting media typically made a mockery of their questions. He mostly just answered them by repeating the phrase, “Yeah,” or “Thanks for asking.” To that end, Lynch is — and has always been — a man who says things his way, does things his way and lives his own way.

But the thing is, the brother gives back. Whether it’s handing out his signature line of bikes to disadvantaged young’uns, leading a massive bike parade through his hometown or visiting his old high school, Oakland Tech, where his mom Delisa was also a star athlete. Soon, too, Lynch will be the owner of a new Oakland Indoor Football League team. The Raiders may be bouncing outta town to Vegas next season, but Lynch is trying to keep community-based football alive and well in Oakland.

All of which was what really inspired the one time he gave the media something other than “Yeah,” or “Thanks for asking.” It was a couple of Sundays ago after the Seattle Seahawks (one of three teams he played for, with the Buffalo Bills and, of course, the Raiders being the others) had been bounced from the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers. Lynch had come back for the final few games of the season to help the Seahawks attempt to once again reach the Super Bowl. Afterward, in a completely unexpected turn of events, he spoke with reporters. He didn’t, however, answer questions about whether this truly was the end of his playing days. Instead, he gave a secular sermon about football, the flame of youth and the finances of Black men and their families.

“Look, I’ll say this, though: This is a vulnerable time for a lot of these young dudes, ya feel me?” he told the assembled media. “They don’t be takin’ care of their chicken, right, ya feel me? So if they was me — or if I had an opportunity to let these little young sahibs know something, I’d say take care of y’all money, African. Because that shit don’t last forever. 

“Now I’ve been on the other side of retirement, and it’s good when you get over there and you can do what the fuck you want to. So I tell y’all right now, while y’all in it: Take care of y’all bread, so when y’all done you can go ahead and take care of yourself. So while y’all at it right now, take care of y’all’s bodies, know what I mean, take care of y’all’s chicken, ya feel me, take care of y’all’s mental. So when y’all ready to walk away, y’all walk away and you’ll be able to do what y’all want to do.”

* * * * *

On the last day before the Oakland Raiders last-ever home game, Lynch throws a pop-up event at Rob Ben’s. The move has been hard for Oakland to accept. It’s one more inevitable, unavoidable change that’s out of the citizens’ hands, subject, once again, to the whims of powerful monied interests and outsiders. 

But there’s reason to celebrate, too: The game more or less coincides with the one-year anniversary of Rob Ben’s. And so, the pop-up is as much to commemorate that as it is the loss of the Raiders. Lynch has even brought in Chef Alvin Cailan, the host of The Burger Show for First We Feast, to cook up Wagyu burgers for everyone. (Cailan had once invited Lynch to hang out with him and try a gold-flake cheeseburger in a panoramic sky-rise in Vegas, and the two men immediately hit it off.)

Once the doors open a little past 4 p.m., Rob Ben’s starts filling up with people. I take a seat at the bar, where Lil’ Red, a thin-faced Black woman in a jean jacket, sits down next to me. Her daughter is working the bar, and she insists I try the Wagyu burger. It’s not as spicy as I expect it to be, but it still has some serious heat. Her review is more generous. Lil’ Red wipes a napkin across her mouth to catch the burger grease spilling from the corners of her smile, looks up with a satisfied grin and says, “He definitely put his foot in this.” 

Lil’ Red tells me that her and Lynch go way back. “Once they opened this place up, I didn’t come to the grand opening. Later, my daughter said, ‘Mom, come down.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So I came in here, and I sat over there. It was like closing time, and Marshawn was here. So she said, ‘Marshawn, let me introduce you to my mom.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That ain’t your mom.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that it is my mom.’ I told him, ‘Let me tell you something: TV and the pictures don’t do anything for you. You’re a handsome Black man.’ All the color flushed from his cheeks.”

After another quick sip of her cocktail, Lil’ Red finishes her story: “So I said to him, ‘I’m gonna make you remember me. We met you probably six years ago; you were driving a white Hummer and wearing all white.’ He said, ‘I ain’t never owned no Hummer, and I don’t even wear white.’ So I said, ‘Let me tell you something. You might fool yourself, but you can’t fool me.’ Suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh wow, you my nigga. Y’know what? You cool. My nigga.’”

Almost on cue, the man himself pushes through the front door. He’s wearing all black and a hoodie with the hood up, balanced atop a beanie from his brand Beastmode. He’s big in person, but he’s not gargantuan. In fact, he’s not much bigger than his brother David. Yet, Lynch is pro-football thick. It looks like he’s made out of bricks. He walks with a slight sideways shuffle, much like his NFL running style. But also, you can tell his body has received and given out years of punishment. As such, he moves with a ginger quality. It’s like he doesn’t want to ask too much of any one joint at any one time. 

As he moves through the crowd of his fam, friends, fans and Oakland locals, he wears a big smile. A vibe forms around him, Oakland’s favorite son. No one, however, rushes up on him. Everyone waits for Lynch to come to them. Like any good restaurateur, too, he goes from table to table, giving dap and pounds all around. 

One person, though, goes out of her way to single him out — a hunched grandma. She’s with a small Black boy. Only, she looks far more eager than the boy to meet Lynch. She asks for a picture with the famous football star, you know, for the boy. Lynch cocks his head to the side. He listens. She says the boy is a big fan, and he really wants a picture. The boy says nothing. He just stares up at Lynch. He’s probably five years old. It seems like all he knows is that this man is someone famous, mostly because of how the adults are acting, especially his grandma. 

Lynch looks down at the boy and nods before looking back at the grandma and telling her, “Don’t do that.” She’s mortally offended, but he explains his stance politely and with no bullshit: “Let the boy be on his own. He can come to me when he wants. Don’t push him to do something he don’t want.” He then gives the little boy a fist pound and walks over to another table. 

“Marshawn ain’t all that,” the grandma mutters to herself as she storms off in the opposite direction.

Lil’ Red just sits back and laughs. “That’s why I respect him,” she tells me. “Marshawn’s all the way real.” 

And in Oakland, no matter if Lynch can defeat the immovable object that is gentrification, there is no higher praise.