alaMar's Chef German: “Let’s Not Quit”

Nelson German, chef-owner of alaMar and Sobre Mesa, on his love for Oakland and what it takes to thrive in 2020

Susannah Chen
Nelson German, chef and owner of alaMar and Sobre Mesa in Oakland. (Photo by Albert Poon)

If it wasn’t for his bread pudding cake, Nelson German might never have had the chance to feed the people of Oakland. 

A born-and-bred New Yorker who’d spent his career working in Manhattan kitchens, Nelson witnessed his destiny unfold when he baked a cake for his best friend’s birthday party. It was there that he met his future wife, May. “When she tasted that, it made her get my number,” he says with a grin. “We’ve been together ever since, which is why I’m here today—I came to California for love, of course.” 

Five years later, the pair married and relocated to her hometown of Oakland. In 2014, they opened alaMar, a restaurant that specializes in fast and casual seafood in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. At six years old, it’s now a staple of the community, one with a unique culinary point of view drawn from the chef’s Caribbean Afro-Latinx roots as a Dominican New Yorker, his Mediterranean travels, and East Asian technique learned under Japan Iron Chef Yuji Wakiya. This past March, with enough of a local following, the Germans opened Sobre Mesa, a Afro-Latino cocktail bar nearby that showcased Caribbean cocktails and tapas inspired by the chef’s travels throughout Spain. 

Still, with the unexpected curveball of shelter-in-place orders for restaurants and the city’s continued and prominent role in the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality protests, operating a restaurant in Oakland right now has been anything but smooth sailing. We asked the chef for his thoughts on what it’s like to be Black and running a restaurant in America, the crucial role the neighborhood has played during trying times, and how our current national environment can bring about true growth.

Nelson in front of his Oakland restaurant, alaMar. (Photo by Albert Poon)

Why did you choose to put down roots in Oakland? 

My wife was born and raised here. Oakland was a bad city back in the day, but when we came back, she saw how the neighborhood had changed—there was music playing outside, live bands, foot traffic, it was such a different place. Restaurants and small businesses were really revitalizing the city. This was her home, and it meant more to be here than any other city. We could’ve easily gone to Pleasanton or Dublin, which has a higher-income clientele, but it just had to be in Oakland. 

Both your restaurants are in the heart of Oakland. What type of people do they draw in?

We have a great amount of regulars, and our clientele’s very diverse. Our clientele, they’re just fun-loving. alaMar feels like Cheers, honestly. People know each other and they're meeting new people, too. Everyone’s having a good time. People get up from their tables to go say hi to somebody else at another table, even somebody they don’t know, just because they want to ask, “Are you enjoying everything?” It’s almost like they’re part of the restaurant and they work here, which is really cool. 

What we strive to do is make people feel at home, and that makes people show their true selves, so people are very happy being here. It’s just the good vibes. 

You’re also consulting on a nonprofit restaurant in the works, right?

Yes. COLORS is a community center/restaurant that’s showcasing a larger part of the Black diaspora. It’s just not African Americans: There are Blacks who speak Spanish like myself, Blacks who speak French, Blacks who have a British accent. We wanted to showcase that with COLORS, because a lot of places that open up in the Bay Area are barbecue or soul food. 

It’s also a training center. During the day we’re going to be training the next chefs, servers, and managers. People of color, in general, don’t get as many opportunities as whites to make it up the ladder. We’re training for free. We’re not there to gentrify, and want to be a staple of the neighborhood. It’s run by people of color, people who grew up in Fruitvale, so it’s bringing something special back to the neighborhood.

What’s it been like since the pandemic began?

Nonstop. With alaMar, we only closed for two days. The first week, we were using Caviar and the mobile ordering system for pickup on our website, and it wasn’t enough—I knew I had to add more platforms and really focus on takeout. To be honest with you—and this is not because you work with them—DoorDash saved our business. The second week we started seeing boosts, and every week we just kept going up.

We opened Sobre Mesa on March 5. We were only open for nine days. I was depressed about closing it; we had a great staff, and people thought the food was fantastic. But there were things we kind of rushed into that we are fixing now because we’re closed. That was our soft opening in a way: We saw what worked, what didn’t work, and we get to fix it now because of the closure and come back with a bigger bang. It was a blessing in disguise. 

COLORS was slated to open in April before the shelter in place happened. Once everything opens up again, we’ll have to reassess what we can do—a lot of the banquettes there are close to each other, so we’ll have to find ways of keeping people safe. 

Restaurants have reacted to the pandemic in so many different ways. Why did you tackle the issue the way you did?

For me, it was just the mentality: Let’s not quit. We came this far. It was really bad the first week, but we kept adding platforms and changing the menu slightly. It was just me in here, with one other cook. My wife was handling the front. We had to lay off about 50 percent of the staff. Throughout the weeks, we’ve been increasing staff again, and we’re almost back to the exact amount we had before.

What tweaks have you had to make to the way you run alaMar?

My thing was to present my seafood boils in a beautiful cast-iron pot. Now we have to serve them in plastic oven bags. With cocktails, we can’t just create something nice in front of the guest anymore, so we honed in on trying to learn what we can batch that will get to the guest and still taste great. 

One thing we might have to change is the whole family style-dining thing. That’s the one thing I miss. I specifically created the seafood boils in order to help people connect. People nowadays are in a restaurant on their phones, but when the food comes out and you have to eat with your hands, they’re actually having conversations and smiling at each other. We’re going to focus on takeout now because we have to survive, but I miss seeing guests inside smiling, enjoying their food, and talking to each other. 

We’ve also been doing a lot of nonprofit work: We joined with The LEE Initiative and World Central Kitchen. First we made 300 meals per day for laid-off restaurant workers; now we’re doing meals for the homeless and senior homes. Operationally, now we’re not just a restaurant—we’re a relief kitchen. That's a big change for us.

Whole Alaskan Snow Crab Boil

How has alaMar fared as a business compared to before pandemic times?

It’s actually peaked. We broke our sales record last Saturday, which is crazy. When you’re open for dine-in, there’s only a certain capacity you can have, but doing takeout, there’s no capacity. These past few weeks, it’s been amazing, people supporting Black-owned businesses. It’s just nonstop tickets—full and hanging from the printer, on the side of the wall. I'm very grateful and happy. 

What’s been the biggest challenge during the economic shutdown? Have there been any silver linings?

Doing the takeout thing. The whole format was very different for me, all of us in the kitchen, and the front of the house. We have a wonderful food warmer, so we can keep food hot all the time. That was the hardest thing: When we’re busy, how do we make sure the food is always hot, even if the couriers don’t come on time or the guests don’t come on time? 

The biggest silver lining is the relief meals. We’re building our family. I knew how hard it was for people to lose their jobs in this industry. A lot of us don’t make as much money as someone in tech or other industries, but we love serving guests and making people happy with food, service, and ambience, so it meant a lot to me to be able to do that. People supporting us now are some of those restaurant workers that were getting food and wanted to give back to us. It all comes full circle: We support the community, and the community’s supporting us back and keeping us alive. 

What do restaurants need to do if they’re to survive in the long run?

You will have to really make your place a place that people feel safe, healthwise. Honing in on hygiene and health safety measures is going to be number one. At alaMar, we’re doing six feet apart with tables. I'm going to hire one person who all they do is disinfect, clean, and make sure everything’s safe for the guests and team members. 

The ones that are going to close are the people who never really became a part of the neighborhood. Anything that’s over 2,000 square feet is not going to survive—you just need too much overhead. If someone’s not taking the change to takeout seriously, or really just building that community, making people see why you should still be there and what you do for the neighborhood, then you’re not coming back, unfortunately. 

This year has also been a real time of reckoning with racial injustice. What’s it been like to be a Black-owned business through all of it?

It’s a lot of emotions. There’s the emotional aspect to all the protesting and why it’s happening, but also because I couldn't be out there with my people—I have to be here making sure my business is safe and surviving. But now it seems like real change is happening. The amount of support we’ve been getting recently as a Black-owned business has been overwhelming. That has made me happy. But it’s still in the back of my mind: Is this going to continue, or is it just going to go away in a couple of weeks? Is this a real change, or is it a fad? 

What does your intuition tell you?

Deep down I think this is real. It’s not just Black Lives Matter. It’s everyone coming together, including Asians and Latinos, with things we have gone through for years. Now we’re fighting back, but it’s all peaceful.

And it’s not just people. There are a lot of big companies calling us, asking: What can we do to help support you? To be honest, at first I was like, “This is a marketing scheme; once they’re part of the movement it makes them look good as a company.” But it’s feeling like a lot of it is genuine, especially from the people who are running the companies; some of them are people of color. I thought it was going to feel fake, but I think things are really changing, finally. 

What other changes would you like to see for people of color in the community?

It goes back to the policing reform, having helpers around the city to help people in non-emergency cases to keep people at ease, motivate and encourage, de-escalate things. That’s going to be important. If there is going to be police, there’s reason for them to be here, for major incidents. 

For school systems, learning real history. I’d never heard of Juneteenth until I came to Oakland. That’s real history, a great thing to happen that changed the world. Kids need to learn about that. There should be education on racism and anti-racism in schools, too. We need to help and build youth in the right way so there isn’t all this hate, and there’s always love. 

One might argue that serving delicious food is always love. 

Food is the one thing that really brings everyone together. There is no racism in food, and we as chefs are proud of that.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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