a black woman in a black dress and orange-framed glasses cuts a ribbon with large wooden novelty scissors among a crowd in front of a store front with vibe bistro painted on the glass

New Downtown Richmond Café Wants to Be ‘Community and Cultural Art Hub’

a black woman in a black dress and orange-framed glasses cuts a ribbon with large wooden novelty scissors among a crowd in front of a store front with vibe bistro painted on the glass

Free Brown cuts the ceremonial ribbon to mark the opening of her café and art and event space, Vibe Bistro, located next to the Richmond BART and Amtrak station. (Natasha Kaye / The CC Pulse)

By Natasha Kaye

Downtown Richmond’s newest café, restaurant and event space opened its doors Thursday to dozens of Richmonders who gathered to watch Vibe Bistro’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Members of the Chamber of Commerce and City Council, including Mayor Eduardo Martinez, circled around the owner and founder of Vibe Bistro, Free Brown, as she sliced through the ribbon with the chamber’s signature wooden scissors. 

“I don’t know if I want us to be different as much as I want us to be familiar and accessible,” Brown said. “We have a huge emphasis on art in the space because I want it to be a community and cultural art hub where people just like me can walk up the street and know we have a safe space here.”

What began as interest in tea-making for Brown blossomed into the creation of a sandwich, soup, and salad menu full of her own creations like the “Jerk Chicken” with mango, pico de gallo and jerk sauce on ciabatta as well as the “Dad Would Have Loved This,” a pastrami and Swiss cheese sandwich with mustard and sauerkraut on rye. The bistro also offers plenty of vegetarian options, salads, pastries, coffee and, of course, tea. 

At its core, Vibe Bistro is centered on the well-being of the community. It is a “Second Chance Employer ” for individuals with criminal records, is the only restaurant in the county to accept SNAP benefits, and is a certified Green Business. It partners with community gardens to donate green waste and ensures that their unsold food will either be composted or donated to unhoused outreach programs. Also to help prevent food waste, the bistro is on the Too Good to Go app, which lets businesses sell surplus food at a discounted rate.

“This is what we want: We don’t want extraction; we want that the wealth we produce stays here and supports people in the community and supports everybody,” said Richmond City Council member Claudia Jimenez. 

The building the bistro is located in is a part of the Richmond Business Hub owned by Ernst Valery Investments Corporation, a private real estate investment firm that says it is dedicated to investing in underserved real estate markets like Richmond. Ernst Valery himself designed the space and handed it over to Brown to create the bistro.

“When I first saw Richmond, it was the only place in the Bay Area that had both BART and Amtrak at the same station. And yet, time and time again, it gets overlooked,” Valery said. “But this is a gem. This city is a gem, and we believe in it. We think it could be one of the greatest cities in America if we keep supporting small businesses like Free’s business, if we keep thinking, ‘How do we develop without displacing? How do we value the people that are already here?’ That’s always been my commitment.”

Inside, the bistro’s walls are adorned with paintings from local artists. Outside, the storefront features a mural from Richmond native Nakari Syon, who is on contract to update the design every few months. 

“I grew up doing graffiti in the streets and not asking permission to go paint. I was more of a nuisance than a solution,” Syon said, “but as I aged and matured, I wanted to give back to this community and I wanted to inspire those who inspired how I was inspired… and what inspired me is seeing all y’all’s faces.”

In addition to offering tasty food and strong coffee, the bistro will hold events like concerts, gardening classes, art lessons, and even a sewing machine basics workshop in June. All events can be found on its website. 

If You Go: Vibe Bistro is located at 1503 Macdonald Ave., next to the Richmond BART and Amtrak station. It is open weekdays from 5 a.m. – 1 p.m.

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