A moment of truth for Oswald and the community-cultivating man behind it

Damani Thomas
Damani Thomas is trying to keep Oswald alive for the community that loves it as much as he does.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

A surprisingly successful GoFundMe campaign has given Oswald, one of Santa Cruz’s most revered restaurants, a much-needed boost in its efforts to survive the pandemic. But will it be enough for chef Damani Thomas and Co.?

The literal act of an Amish-style barn raising doesn’t happen much anymore, especially in places like Santa Cruz County. But as a metaphor for collective community action, it has endured in ways that the Amish themselves wouldn’t recognize.

These days, the barn raising often comes in the form of an online GoFundMe campaign. But the impulse remains the same: to answer the call of a neighbor in need, to make concrete the often abstract idea of a community, to illustrate the old adage “Many hands make light work.”

The most vivid recent example locally comes by way of Oswald, the long-standing downtown restaurant that is, on the estimation of many, at or near the top of the list of Santa Cruz’s finest dining experience.

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On Nov. 19, Oswald’s owner and master chef Damani Thomas reluctantly issued the public call that his restaurant was in trouble and that he needed financial help to see it through what is likely to be a make-or-break winter.

His goal was to raise the relatively modest sum of $10,000.

To date, the GoFundMe campaign has brought in nearly $36,000 from more than 200 contributors.

“I’m just moved to tears,” said Thomas in a lull between kitchen shifts. “It just makes me really proud to be part of this community.”

Oswald possesses what restaurateurs consider to be the double-sided gold coin of lasting success in a famously volatile industry: a reputation for consistently delicious cuisine and as a convivial touchstone for a fulfilling social life for many of its patrons. Come for the food; stay for the laughs and good cheer.

Lupolo
Lupolo on Cathcart Street has been a popular outdoor dining destination in downtown.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s our local Cheers,” said long-time regular Jenna McClure, a Santa Cruz hair stylist. “Every time (my husband) Gavin and I go there, we see the minimum of two, all the way up to 10 people, sometimes, from the downtown community. It’s a big draw. We don’t have children or family in town, so coming off work and it’s a weekend and we want to be social and see people we love, we always want to go to Oswald.”

“It’s wonderful to sit there on a Saturday evening,” said Suna Lock, owner of the downtown boutique retailer Stripe, “and see three or four or five or six other couples or groups of friends who you know in the community. There’s tremendous comfort in that.”

Oswald’s star bartender Josh Youngblood often presides over the bonhomie, with a dazzling variety of adventurous cocktails and deep relationships with many of those who drink them. As for the menu, Lock said “It’s always a hit and never a miss. It’s not a gamble.”

“The food is always excellent,” said Drew Miller, another downtown regular. “Chicken is not usually a popular dining-out dish. But Damani does something with chicken that makes it tender and juicy and sweet, and I’ve eaten more restaurant chicken at Oswald than I have (elsewhere) in my entire life.”

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As a chef, Thomas works in that sweet spot between recognizable non-fussy neighborhood fare and a menu, drawing from the bounty of locally grown and harvested ingredients, that aspires to be memorable — as memorable as the first dates, anniversaries, and birthdays that people regularly choose to spend at Oswald.

Oswald first emerged in the mid 1990s in a small makeshift courtyard near the north end of Pacific Avenue behind the ruin of the earthquake-destroyed building that once housed Bookshop Santa Cruz. Damani Thomas was there in that period, starting as a young sous chef, learning from master chef and the restaurant’s original owner Charlie Deal who later opened the famous Asian fusion place Charlie Hong Kong.

After more than a decade building its reputation in that provisional location, Oswald closed its doors with an eye toward finding a new spot. After a few months with no Oswald on the restaurant scene — Suna Lock called it “dreadful lag” — the restaurant reopened at its present site, at the corner of Front Street and Soquel Avenue in the former spot of the infamous bar the Silver Bullet, home to “drink and drown” Wednesdays.

Damani Thomas, in his element.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

By that time, Thomas and his former partner Keet Beck-Brattin were in charge, bringing a jolt of urbane sophistication to a block that didn’t possess much of it at the time. One of Thomas’s first moves as owner was to make Oswald a bit more approachable with a bar menu that stressed top-notch attention paid to such familiar items as burgers, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese.

Oswald was flourishing from its perch at the top of Santa Cruz’s restaurant scene in early 2020 when the pandemic dramatically and suddenly changed the calculus for all downtown businesses.

“I actually thought it would pass by really quickly,” said Thomas, “that it might screw up March and April a little bit, but we would probably be OK. But, then in June, I started to feel really icky about things.”

After being closed for two months, Oswald opened for take-out only. Since the reopening, revenues have been about a quarter of what they were in previous years. The restaurant has cut its staff in half. The restaurant gamely reinvented itself as an outdoors venue, creating 11 new tables on the sidewalk on Front Street.

In the world we’ve cultivated, asking for help is a sign of weakness. But (I’ve learned) that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to be down and it’s okay to ask for help.”

— Damani Thomas

The crisis came about when a series of big maintenance issues all came to the fore at once: a compressor on a freezer failed, an oven door had to be replaced, a refrigerator was failing, and the hot-water heater broke. Like many proud entrepreneurs, Thomas didn’t want to ask for help from his community. But circumstances dictated otherwise.

“In the world we’ve cultivated, asking for help is a sign of weakness,” he said. “But (I’ve learned) that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to be down and it’s okay to ask for help.”

“To me, it was like a gunshot reaction,” said patron Jenna McClure, herself a veteran of the restaurant industry. “I panicked. Oswald is part of our life, a biweekly, sometime triweekly experience for us. So the thought of us losing that ... I’m not afraid to use the word ‘scary.’”

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Thomas is gratified at the support the community has shown Oswald so far. But a happy ending to the restaurant’s 2020 struggles is not guaranteed, even with the life-saving boost of the GoFundMe.

“I’m afraid, man,” he said. “And it’s not a place where I want to be. I feel that people don’t make good decisions when they’re scared. But I’m optimistic too. Before I wanted to make it through this for myself and my employees. That’s personal enough. But now, it’s for the whole community that’s depending on us to get through this. That makes me want to work harder, be more creative, and offer more of what people really want.”