Pinky and Red's is in a college food court, but when I stepped up to the counter, I felt at home.
There's the portable record player, where guests can play records from Beyoncé to Aretha Franklin. There's the wall where guests write messages with colorful markers. The menu is filled with comfort food: fried chicken sandwiches, burgers, yams, fried kale mac 'n' cheese, and blueberry-cranberry lemonade. And then there's owner Bernadine Sewell, nicknamed "Pinky" for her pink hair, who greets everyone with a smile and asks how his or her day is going. When I visited, she offered me a lollipop. "It's 'be a kid day' today," she laughed.
Sewell and her daughter, Sicily Sewell-Johnson, founded Pinky and Red's to carry on the tradition of Sunday dinners. Many recipes date back six generations. "When you come into Pinky and Red's, you're coming into my great-grandmother Mama Annie's house," Sewell said. "That's her table, there's her record player, you sit down, you talk, you eat, you get to experience what it's like on a Sunday at an African-American house."
Pinky and Red's is one of five food kiosks that opened to the public in UC Berkeley's Student Union last fall, all launched through food business incubator La Cocina. All five businesses received academic year-long leases to stay in the student union.
Or so they thought. Last November, the student union told Sewell and Sewell-Johnson that their kiosk had been promised to the UC Berkeley Student Food Collective for the spring semester, and Pinky and Red's would have to either share the space with them or move out. When Pinky and Red's resisted, the student union decided to vote in December whether to allow Pinky and Red's to stay.
During that difficult time, Sewell found herself thinking differently about the photo of her six-time great-grandfather, displayed on the wall at Pinky and Red's. The 1859 photo portrays him, a cook on a Tennessee plantation, with his slave owners.
"Some days it makes me angry when I look at it, you know, the whole slave owner thing. Then you get hurt, you get embarrassed. But then I've grown in the last four months, and I look at it now and I'm so proud."
Sewel explained that prior to the possible eviction, "It all felt like, 'I've worked so hard to get here'... Every day before I close[d], I would look at those photos, and say, 'Oh OK, I'm walking in the footsteps, I made it."
Once she learned Pinky and Red's might be evicted, Sewell said, "It hit me, I had not made it. ... It was like my life was on the line. Everything I had worked for."
As the vote approached, Sewell saw things in a different light. "When you become an entrepreneur ... you have to see things differently. You have to get past where you've been and then start to look at where you're headed. ... I realized [my ancestors'] sacrifices made it possible for Pinky and Red's ... whether I lost the space or not."
A loyal following stood up for Pinky and Red's at the student union's vote in December. That's when Sewell realized how important the business was to the Berkeley community. A Muslim student expressed how much it meant to him that Pinky and Red's served halal meat. One Black student described how the restaurant alleviated her homesickness and served as a safe space. Another Black student said he had thought of dropping out, but at Pinky and Red's, he could sit down, have some lemonade, and talk things over.
The student union thankfully voted to keep Pinky and Red's for the spring semester, preserving one of the few Black-owned businesses on the UC Berkeley campus. But the threat of losing the space left a lasting impact. During those months of uncertainty, Sewell-Johnson, who has two children, accepted an offer to work as a chef in New York — making Sewell the sole owner.
But Sewell continues to serve Sunday dinner-inspired comfort food to the community. The fried chicken sandwich was recently named runner-up in The Mercury News' best fried chicken sandwich contest. Though Pinky and Red's narrowly lost, Sewell expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support she received. "To have this come right on the heels of almost losing the space, you don't know how rewarding this is for me," Sewell said.
The fried chicken sandwich is made using chicken breast marinated with "Pinky's spice blend," inspired by recipes from Sewell's Louisiana-born father. The spices added smoky-spicy flavor, though the breading was thinner than most fried chicken sandwiches I've tried.
My favorite sandwich was the Yeehaw: fried chicken breast, cheese, bacon, arugula, and tomato on Texas toast. It's listed on the back of the menu, which consists entirely of student creations. The Yeehaw was created by a group of students low on cash, looking for a sandwich big enough to split. "They said ... the toast is Texas, everything is bigger in Texas, the sandwich is bigger, so Yeehaw!" Sewell laughed.
The burger came with a thick, juicy patty and classic flavors. The fried kale mac 'n' cheese was creamy on the inside, yet crunchy on the outside. The Midnight Craving, a student creation of fries topped with candied yams, was salty-sweet, carby goodness. And the blueberry-cranberry lemonade, made in-house with fresh fruit, was a refreshing, tart accompaniment. "A lot of people say ... 'When I come and get that lemonade, it makes me feel like everything's gonna be OK," Sewell said.
Prices are affordable, with chicken sandwiches for $8 and mac 'n' cheese for $4. Sewell is well-aware of the food insecurities facing many students, and she'll often provide a meal to a hungry student free. She also donates food to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry and the Here There community camp in South Berkeley.
It's easy to see why Pinky and Red's has become so important not just on the UC Berkeley campus, but also in the Berkeley community. But Pinky and Red's future, once the semester ends in May, is unclear.
Sewell admits she'd like a bigger kitchen to support the catering aspect of her business — her current space is limited to fryers, a griddle, and Instant Pots — and she'd like to have a storefront where Pinky and Red's would be visible from the street. Still, Sewell loves providing students with a safe space that feels like home.
Pinky and Red's is a reminder that restaurants aren't always just about food. Sometimes the communities that support them, and the communities they support in return, are just as important.