by John Ramos

RICHMOND (KPIX) — Across from the Richmond Marina sits an Italian restaurant called Salute e Vita. Translated, it means “health and life.” Health is in the food served here but the life comes from its owner, Menbe Aklilu.

“This restaurant is really home for everyone, no matter who you are,” Aklilu told KPIX.

Salute e Vita Ristorante

Salute e Vita Ristorante in Richmond. (CBS)

Aklilu bought the business 15 years ago with help from a generous patron and she’s been paying it forward ever since as Salute has become a local institution.

Formerly homeless and a victim of domestic violence, Aklilu now serves holiday food to the needy, offers free flu-shot clinics and gives etiquette lessons to local teenagers. Her efforts earned her a Jefferson Award for public service.

“There’s something about Menbe that attracts those of us that need a second chance in life, right?” asks Jamie Dooley, a host supervisor at Salute e Vita.

“(Aklilu) represents love and when I come in here, I feel — I sense — that people around me are feeling it as well,” said Jonathan Livingston, a regular patron of Salute.

Folks here were shocked last week when Aklilu announced the restaurant will close in July. She’s been fighting eviction for two years and says her landlord is now demanding new lease terms that she simply cannot accept.

“By giving me this unfair lease he forced me out. So, I said ‘no, I’m leaving,'” Aklilu said.

The news came as a blow to the staff of 40 — some who’ve worked here for more than two decades.

“You know, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve just been tossing and turning. What’s gonna happen?” asked Gon Vilayphanh, bar manager at Salute.

It will be a huge loss to the community as well. Aklilu says she has already received requests to open a restaurant in Oakland, Berkeley, Hercules and Napa. As a survivor of far worse, she is confident things will work out but it will not be easy to leave.

“No matter what, as long as I work hard, as long as I respect the rules, as long as I give love, I will be absolutely okay. But my heart is bleeding because I love Richmond. I don’t want to go anywhere except Richmond,” Aklilu said.

On its final weekend, July 5 and 6, the restaurant will serve free meals. In return, the owner asks customers to leave a cash tip as an exit bonus for the workers.

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